Can Academic Gerontology Keep from Becoming Irrelevant?

By Pelham, Anabel | Aging Today, March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

Can Academic Gerontology Keep from Becoming Irrelevant?

Pelham, Anabel, Aging Today

Academic gerontology programs that grant degrees face new challenges in the United States and, increasingly, in Europe. For the most part, these challenges are structural, but unless the field of aging recognizes and addresses them in a meaningful way, and soon, the discipline-and we gerontologists-will become irrelevant.

Gerontology programs, students, graduates, the community and the discipline suffer in a variety of ways because the programs are not accredited by a national organization. The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education's Program of Merit (POM), a voluntary review process offering a stamp of approval, provides a good start, but POM is neither widely used nor recognized by university deans and provosts as equivalent to accreditation. Academic gerontology programs routinely queue up at the end of the budgetary lines for scarce and diminishing college and university funds, in part because they cannot hold up accreditation standards that provide even minimum support for tenure-track faculty, clerical staff, publication, curriculum development, professional travel and other resources.


Many gerontology programs are relatively young by academic standards, having been founded only in the last 30 years. In addition, they are comparatively small programs administered and taught by few, often part-time faculty. Tenure-track positions and professors of gerontology are rare, and few programs receive important institutional designations, such as a gerontology-course prefix (GRN or GERO, for example), or receive 100% of the credit for students enrolled in interdisciplinary courses on aging.

It is important to remember that every student enrolled full time in a program is the coin of the university realm. Programs receive so many dollars to deliver a curriculum to a certain number of students. In academia's fiscal math, this number is a program's target: If programs fall short the dollars are cut, so numbers of students matter.

Although the offering of gerontology coursework in other disciplines is valuable and the participation of interdisciplinary faculty is welcome, helpful and enriching to the field, the long-term health of a gerontology program ultimately requires discipline-based resources and recognition. In a positive trend for gerontology, other health and human-services or behavioral and social science disciplines are adding gerontological content, such as within their specializations and certificate programs. However, allowing gerontology to reside only in the curricula of other disciplines will effectively fragment the field's knowledge. As a stand-alone, interdisciplinary curriculum, gerontology can provide a solid grounding for synthesizing the field's many realms of knowledge.

Most professionals in the field of aging recognize the value of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaboration. However, funding of academic programs flows through the blood vessels of disciplines. A small, graduate (as opposed to undergraduate), relatively young, interdisciplinary academic program is vulnerable and particularly at risk in the new corporate model of university administration. Especially at public institutions, general-fund tax support for higher education continues to decline, and college and university administrators nationwide are focused on efficiency and nonduplication in the offerings of curricula and degree programs.

If administrators believe, incorrectly, that gerontological knowledge can be adequately conveyed to students through traditional courses in health, human services and social science, they will have little incentive for providing stand-alone gerontology programs.

Sadly, many academic gerontology programs in the United States and Europe have spent the last few years fighting to exist. For example, at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and San Diego State University (SDSU), the gerontology faculty and colleagues in the field fought years-long battles to save their degree programs after university administrators moved to discontinue them. …

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