Shirt tucked, sleeves rolled and khakis ironed, Thomas Henricks checked his watch to make sure he wouldn’t be late to his first class at Elon University. After climbing to the third floor of the Powell Building, he paused before entering room 302.

“Here I go,” he thought. 

Halfway through his first sociology class, Henricks scanned the room and thought, ‘Is it going well?’ He could overhear a boy by the door doing a poor job whispering to his friend.

“This son-of-a-bitch is going to keep us the whole time.”

Forty-one years and several sociology classes later, Henricks’ final year at Elon is coming to an end. He is preparing to retire with the one of the largest groups of retiring faculty and administrators in recent Elon history. 

Why the size?

Provost Steven House attributes this large group of retiring faculty to the continuous growth of the university over the years. 

Henricks, now a professor of sociology, joined Elon’s faculty in 1977, when there were fewer than 100 full-time faculty members. Now, there are more than three times that number.

According to House, this growth means larger groups of faculty will retire together in the future — the more professors, the more retirees.

“We had a lot of growth in the university … and those individuals have helped create the Elon we are today,” House said. “I’m not sure I would say huge, but this is certainly the largest that we’ve had, and it is to be expected. They have reached the age of retirement, and we are going to have to rely on a new group of leaders.”

Above is a graph showing the growth of both Elon faculty and student throughout the years. The graph features statistics date back to the 70s, but also shows predicted numbers until 2035.

Data available from 1989 onward from the Elon Fact Book shows that Elon’s faculty has steadily grown since the 1989-90 academic school year.

Elon’s goal is to continue this upward trend, according to House. But this goal is not only for the faculty, but also for the student body, which has experienced steady growth since the 1993-94 academic school year.

“The growth of the faculty is tied to the growth of the number of students,” House said. “Our targeted student faculty ratio is 12-to-1. So, every time you grow [by] 100 students, you should hire five or six faculty. … Our goal is to grow the institution anywhere from 80 to 100 students a year.”

House has calculated these numbers until the year 2035. 

If Elon continues to grow by 100 students and six faculty each year, the institution will have grown by 1,600 students and 96 faculty members by the 2034-35 academic school year. That’s a total of 7,645 undergraduate students and 535 full-time faculty. 

While these are the goals for the future, the student population growth Elon has experienced thus far has attracted more professors to the university who, according to House, have the opportunity to expand and advance their skills, enabling them to eventually step up and fill the roles of retiring faculty.

Each department is in a different place in the process of hiring new professors, including determining whether each retirees’ position will be filled. 

“We have been building up professors all along the way,” House said. “We have a lot of full professors who are ready to now fill in and become the senior leaders across campus.”

School of Communications

Gerald Gibson’s 36-year career as an assistant professor of communications at Elon consisted of many firsts. 

The Department of Literature, Languages and Communications is where Gibson first began teaching as an instructor in 1979. 

Gerald Gibson, assistant professor of communications listens to a student during his class, Corporate Publishing on April 30. Photo by Oliver Fischer.

He became the first full-time communications professor at Elon and then the first faculty adviser to Elon’s student-run radio station, WSOE. He was there when the School of Communications was founded in 2000, and now, he will be the first communications faculty member to retire.

“Elon has been a great adventure for me,” Gibson said. “I’ve gotten to go abroad, I’ve taken students to New York and Los Angeles, I’ve supervised internships and helped with the radio station. But now it is time for my wife and I to have our own adventures.”

All the adventures Gibson has planned after his retirement fill him with excitement, but he can’t help his emotions mount as his final class closes in.

“I have been trying to compartmentalize my feelings and not let them overwhelm me,” Gibson said. “But the reality that I am doing things for the last time kind of creeps in and I find myself thinking, ‘Now what do I do?’”

Paul Parsons, dean of the School of Communications, has also been thinking about what the school will be like after Gibson retires.

“He is our longest-serving communications professor, and he really got us started,” Parsons said. “We will be poorer without him.”

Paul Parsons, dean of the School of Communications speaks in the Schar Atrium. Photo by Caroline Brehman.

The process of retirement affects both students and faculty.

“We have students who enter as first years who later graduate, and ... we are wishing we could keep them forever, but that is a bad way to think because we are launching them into their careers,” Parsons said. “The same is true for the faculty. We have faculty who have been outstanding that are choosing to retire, and we are hiring new faculty to replace them. It is the cycle of academic life.”

But while Gibson’s academic cycle is coming to an end, Parsons’ is evolving.

Though he is also stepping down from his long-held position as dean at the end of this academic school year, Parsons is planning on returning to Elon in fall 2019 as a full-time professor in the School of Communications. 

“If this were a pure retirement on my part, there would be more sadness, but I’m not feeling any sadness now,” Parsons said. “I’ve served for 17 years as dean and I’ve loved it. But I also think it is time for someone else to do it, so I am looking forward to coming back and being a professor.”

Parsons’ comeback as a professor will add to the number of communications faculty the school has, but he predicts five to ten more communications faculty members will retire over the next three to five years.

“We have faculty who joined us right at the time we became a school, so we have aged as the years have gone on,” Parsons said. “It is natural that we will have retirements.”

School of Health Sciences

In the School of Health Sciences, changes caused by faculty retiring will be felt mostly in the Department of Physical Therapy Education, which will have two of its faculty members retiring by the end of this academic school year.

Jane Freund, associate professor of Physical Therapy Education speaks to her students during her class located in the School of Health Sciences building, the Gerald L. Francis Center on April 27. Photo by Oliver Fischer.

After combined total of 37 years of service, both Sue Chinworth and Jane Freund, associate professors of physical therapy education, will be retiring this academic school year. 

“The thing about both these faculty members is that they have contributed to the traditions and culture of the PT department, and to the PT profession as a whole,” said Becky Neiduski, dean of the School of Health Sciences.

Chinworth was one of the professors who has been teaching in the Department of Physical Therapy Education since its founding in 1998. Chinworth has taught all of the more than 800 alumni from the department before she retired earlier this year when her phased retirement period came to an end.

This process of phased retirement reduces faculty members’ class load before their final retirement. This agreement allows for faculty members to ease into retirement, as well as work alongside their replacements. 

By doing this, Chinworth was able to assure the transition was seamless. 

“What we saw last semester was both of them working simultaneously and the torch being passed from one to the other,” Neiduski said. “To watch that happen is really for Sue to pass on her traditions and for the new faculty to be able to work with her and understand the things she has tried.”

This commitment to teaching the next generation of not only faculty but also students is something Chinworth and Freund share.

“There is great gratitude around their commitment,” Neiduski said. “Commitment means you care enough about the students here to really want to make a difference, to want them to not only be a good physical therapist, but an exceptional physical therapist, who can truly make a difference in every patient they will see.”

While the retirement of both Chinworth and Freund will certainly have an effect on the department of Physical Therapy, it won’t be nearly as large as the effect all of their students will have on the future communities they will work in.

“The privilege of teaching in a health profession is to not only touch the lives of the students, but through those students, touching the lives of all those patients that they will ultimately treat,” Neiduski said. “To have gratitude towards a faculty member for doing that for so many years, you can’t even put into words what they have offered the profession of physical therapy.”

College of Arts & Sciences

With more than 2,800 students, the College of Arts & Sciences is by far the largest school at Elon. And this year it will be having the largest group of retirees. 

The school will have 11 faculty members retiring from nine different departments. There are more faculty retiring this year from the school than in the last three years combined.

Thomas Henricks, professor of sociology, describes his first day of teaching sociology at Elon in his office on Linder Hall. Photo by Abby Gibbs.

Of the retiring faculty members of the College of Arts & Sciences, Henricks has been teaching at Elon the longest. 

He can recall a time when the university was smaller by thousands of students and a time when he was the youngest faculty member on campus. But now, as one of the oldest, Henricks is ready to leave Elon with his senior students.

“I tell my students that I am graduating too, just like my seniors are,” Henricks said. “As you get closer to leaving you realize you are not going to see some of these people face-to-face for the rest of your life, and you know it is a thing to ponder, but you don’t want to get hung up on it.”

Instead, Henricks advises those faculty and students leaving with him to focus on all their accomplishments at Elon. In Henricks’ mind, people who come through Elon will leave the university different from when they first entered.

Over the four decades Henricks has spent at Elon, there are several accomplishments that stand out to him the most. He played a pivotal role in the establishment of the sociology major, which currently has 33 students, according to the 2018 Spring Registrar Report. 

Establishing this major and other accomplishments in teaching and research is why Henricks was named a distinguished university professor, one of the most prestigious honors a professor can receive at Elon.

Henricks is one of only six Elon professors to be named a distinguished university professor. Two other distinguished university professors from the College of Arts & Sciences, Professor of Human Service Studies Pamela Kiser and Professor of Religious Studies Jeffrey Pugh, will also be retiring at the end of this year.

But Henricks is most proud of improving faculty scholarship, which he believes has changed what it means to be an Elon professor.

“What my generation did was create the idea of teacher-scholars,” Henricks said. “That meant having sabbaticals and release time for different kinds of work. I’m very proud of helping to change the vision of what it means to be an Elon professor.”

Henricks also believes this led to the change of what it meant to be an Elon student.

“Back in the old days, like that kid by the door of my first class, some students might just sit and complain about class,” Henricks said. “But that is not what it means to be an Elon student anymore. It is a much broader and more complicated role. You are expected to create, to do leadership, and while kids used to do that in the past, it is now just the expectation.”

It’s been more than four decades since Henricks overheard his student complain about being kept in class for too long. But to this day, every time Henricks thinks about his first class, he just chuckles.

Now, less than a month from graduation, Henricks has found himself referring to the event as commencement rather than graduation.

When defined, commencement means a beginning or start.

As Henricks prepares for his new beginning outside of Elon, he finds himself pausing, just as he did by the door of his first classroom, and once more thinking to himself, “Here I go.”