- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Ageism is emerging as a hot-button issue on campuses throughout North America."The university has been anxious to get rid of senior members in the faculty," said a senior history professor at McGill University, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This is being done largely for economic reasons to save money by compelling senior faculty members who earn considerably more than their younger counterparts to accept retirement packages."
The professor said a memo distributed to every faculty member last fall in the history department at the Montreal-based institution called for professors approaching the age of retirement by 2007 to announce whether they planned to stay on as full-time academics after that date. Retirement is not compulsory at McGill, or at most other North American universities.
The professor charges that the memo has created a climate of "discrimination and intolerance" toward older members of the department.
"The memo claims that there is the possibility of a glut of retirements by people over age 65 by 2007. Yet there could be the possibility of younger faculty members retiring by that date. The reasons for professors choosing to retire are varied and numerous. Why weren't younger faculty members singled out as well in the memo?" the professor said.
"It makes you feel unwanted and that they want to get rid of you. It makes you feel like a second-class citizen in the university and that we are not equal to the younger faculty members. It certainly had that effect on me and others in the department."
Suzanne Morton, head of the history department and co-signer of the memo, denies charges of discrimination against older professors.
"It is absolutely not true. However, I personally have some concerns with faculty members over the age of 65 supervising [graduate] theses due to health concerns. There is always the possibility that the supervisor may fall ill or pass away, leaving the graduate student in the lurch. But that is not official McGill policy," Ms. Morton said.
Senior faculty members are reading too much into the memo, she says, adding that it is simply a planning document meant to stimulate discussion about professors' retirement schedules.
"The memo was written by the long-term-planning committee. It was only written on a planning basis. There were five members on the committee including myself. At least one faculty member was over the age of 65," Ms. Morton said.
The issue of age discrimination also has attracted attention at Notre Dame University, which has had several high-profile cases.
The most recent is that of Thomas Jemielity, a professor in the English department. Mr. Jemielity, 67, charged that an atmosphere of discrimination against senior members in the department compelled him to retire several years before he wanted to.
The South Bend Tribune reported that Mr. Jemielity filed an age-discrimination lawsuit against Notre Dame in late October in U.S. District Court in South Bend, Ind. The lawsuit sought to gain compensation and punitive damages.
The Tribune reported that Mr. Jemielity filed a seven-page complaint that accused Notre Dame of fostering an atmosphere in which older English professors were "marginalized, underpaid and treated with contempt." The lawsuit charged that the department exerted pressure on him to accelerate his plans for retirement.
He also charged that he was ostracized by the university because of his several written and oral complaints, going back to 1993, which denounced the practice of age discrimination.
One such complaint was lodged in 1996, when Mr. Jemielity in an open letter to the English department criticized the exclusion of senior faculty members from a committee studying the department's future.
The university denied the charges of ageism and recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Mr. Jemielity.
"The university was pleased to enter into what we feel was a very reasonable and amicable settlement with Professor Jemielity," university spokesman Dennis Brown said in a statement. "The university denies that it discriminated against Professor Jemielity based on his age, but felt that settlement of this case was the best course of action for the university and for Professor Jemielity, who continues to teach here at the English department."
The issue of ageism has reached even the ivory-tower halls of Harvard University.
Istvan Hont, a history lecturer at King's College in Cambridge University, England, last month accused Harvard University President Lawrence Summers of age discrimination. The 54-year-old Hungarian emigre charged that the university scotched his appointment to a tenured professor position in the government faculty because he was too old, the Times of London reported. The newspaper said Mr. Hont's appointment was denied because of Mr. Summers' desire to bring younger staff into Harvard's faculties.
The case has gained notoriety both in the United States and Britain for highlighting the difficulties that senior academics face in obtaining tenure permanent appointments at many universities.
Although Mr. Hont was selected for a tenure position after an extensive search by Harvard, Mr. Summers rejected the appointment because he wanted to place greater focus on the importance of "career stage," the Times said.
Yet Mr. Hont, who arrived in Britiain from Hungary in 1975, criticized Mr. Summers for failing to understand that people older than 50 still have much to contribute in terms of experience and accumulated wisdom.
"I don't feel old. I feel I'm in the full swing of my research activities," Mr. Hont said in the Times' article. "I was originally a refugee from Hungary and I got all my appointments 10 years later than anybody else. It took me a long time to get to England and establish myself."
Mr. Summers, however, has vowed to alter the way appointments are made at Harvard placing greater emphasis on youth and the potential for scholarly publications. Mr. Hont charges that such an outlook discriminates against older professors and overlooks the fact that academics can continue to be productive well into their 70s.
The anonymous professor at McGill said age discrimination will continue to be an issue in higher education until university administrators realize that the retirement age of 65 is no longer applicable in a society where life expectancy is rising and people are productive for longer periods of time.
"In an aging society, the retirement age of 65 is reactionary," he said. "The practice of driving senior citizens out of the work force is outdated. … In a society where people are living much longer and more productive lives, 65 is obsolete as an age of retirement."


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