Emeritus distinction offers time to explore

By Miranda Holloway

John Lynn was only 14 years old when he first visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the time, he attended what was then Glenbrook High School and competed in science competitions. 

Lynn won at the regional level and attended the state competition at the University. The school made such an impression that he returned for his undergraduate degree.

This wasn’t the end of the story for Lynn, however, as he returned as a history professor in 1978. He taught at the University until 2009, when he retired and earned an emeritus designation.

The title of emeritus is given to qualified retirees to show the University’s gratitude for the work that a faculty member did in their position after their retirement, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said in an email. 

Being an emeritus faculty member is a distinction rather than a paid position, requiring zero time commitments, Kaler said. 

Faculty gain emeritus status after retirement, and approval for the distinction goes through multiple channels.

According to the Office of the Provost’s policy for awarding emeritus status, the process begins with a recommendation by the department, and must be approved by the school, college and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida. The Board of Trustees must then approve the recommendation, which is submitted to the board by President Robert Easter.

“The criteria is we have to see that this professor would be a good member of the community and a good citizen,” said Martin Wong, an associate dean in the College of Engineering.  

Once the title is given, it is kept for life. These professors are eligible to receive benefits, including participation in graduation ceremonies and the same access to University Library as tenured faculty.

“When I finally got my business card that says ‘professor emeritus’ from the department I said ‘ah, it’s my forever card,’” Lynn said.

Emeriti faculty, like other retirees, have multiple options after retirement. Some retire completely, others work at different schools or jobs, and some choose to stay working at the University in some capacity.

“After you retire, you might teach a bit and then just want to enjoy life,” Wong said.

For the emeriti faculty who stay with the University, there is not large financial gain, as retirees are subject to earnings limitation by the State University Retirement System. Additionally, little of the University’s overall budget is spent on emeriti faculty, as each individual college spends less than 1 percent of its budget paying emeriti professors. 

Retirees who stay working can opt for more open schedules, giving them the freedom to explore other opportunities. Those who choose to focus on research, such as Johnathan Danzting, an emeritus professor who worked in mechanical engineering, depend on outside funding for their research, just like other researchers.

Danzting now spends about four months doing computational work with a colleague at École Polytechnique Fèdèrale De Lausanne, a Swiss university.

After retiring, Danzting is focusing on research, which is the aspect of his job that he enjoyed the most.

“It keeps me active doing the things I really liked to do, and I get to interact with my colleagues, and it was the fun part of the job that I had less and less time to do while I was a professor,” Danzting said. 

Retired professors who stay tend to work part time, allowing them to focus on aspects other than teaching, such as writing, researching or enjoying time off. 

Lynn, who retired for another part-time position with Northwestern University, enjoys his new schedule. After having a problem with his agreement with Northwestern, Lynn returned to the University. He said he likes having the opportunity to both write and teach.

“I have a lot of gratitude toward the department for bringing me back,” Lynn said. “I love to teach, and I love the experience of being around students. … I hope to stay in the saddle as long as they give me a horse to ride.”

His schedule allows him to teach two undergraduate courses during the fall semester and work on two books, both of which are under contract, during the spring and summer semesters. 

Joseph Finnerty, an emeritus professor in finance, teaches one section of his Financial Markets course in the fall semester.

Finnerty created the course in 1989 but did not have a chance to teach it until the early 2000s. The course is a requirement for finance and accounting majors. As many as 400 students can be enrolled, Finnerty said, but he said he likes to keep the class sizes smaller — around 40 students. 

“That’s why I get involved in teaching this particular course,” Finnerty said. “I have an ownership. This is something that I did, and I’m proud of it.”

When he is not teaching, Finnerty and his wife enjoy traveling and skiing, and they take advantage of his summers and springs off to go on trips.

Being in the campus environment is also enough to keep retirees like Finnerty close to the University.

“I’ve always been on a college campus and am intrigued by what happens to college campuses, especially in the fall,” Finnerty said. “And just the vitality and what it means to be here at a vibrant university campus. It’s just a phenomenal experience.”

Both Lynn and Finnerty enjoy staying involved at the University and in their fields.

“I like being part of the University community,” Lynn said. “I have been part of this university in one sense or another since I was 14 years old.”

Miranda can be reached at [email protected]