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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2006

Challenging Ageism in the Academy

Thomas R. Klassen & David Macgregor
In December of this year, Ontario will become only the second province in Canada (after Quebec) to banish one of the most disturbing practices of universities — the forced removal of productive and capable faculty members. Mounting opposition at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Alberta, among others, suggests mandatory retirement will soon be shelved there also. It is about time.

Mandatory retirement at an arbitrary age is devastating for female faculty who often began their careers later than males and may have had interruptions to raise children. Faculty who arrived in Canada as adults are also disadvantaged by a policy that uses age as a measure of productivity and value to the organization. Both groups have fewer years of service and thus lower pensions, when reaching age 65. They also may be at an earlier stage in their academic careers when retirement is unwanted.

Universities suffer as a result of mandatory retirement policies. Guided by short-term considerations and outdated views, academic administrators do not reckon for the hard-to-measure institutional costs of losing sophisticated and context-dependent intellectual capital of experienced faculty. This loss will be especially severe given the unprecedented dimensions of the coming retirement wave. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada estimates about one-third of Canadian university teachers will reach 65 by 2011.1

Zealous enforcement of discriminatory retirement policies in an era of resurgent human rights attests to the strength of ageism in Canadian society. To be old is often to been seen as not up-to-date, less productive and suffering from declining skills and motivation. The so-called “graying” of the academy has called forth lamentation and dread, with images of elderly folks shuffling down hallways with old-fashioned attitudes and obsolete knowledge. However, research on veteran American faculty upends negative conceptions of the aged. Late career university teachers were found to be hard-working, loyal to their institutions and to display “a high level of ... vitality and productivity ... Perhaps not surprisingly, high work satisfaction is the leading reason for faculty to delay retirement.” 2

Fortunately things are changing in Canada, if for no other reason than the unprecedented number of individuals (the baby boomers) reaching middle age, who are coming to realize — if unwillingly, that they will be old in the not-too-distant future. Most want to retire before 65, but they certainly do not want an employer telling them that they must. After all, this is the generation that fought for equal rights for women and for other groups, like homosexuals. Ontario politicians listened to the huge group of baby-boomers in changing its human rights laws. The 2006 election platforms of both the federal Liberals and Conservatives included a promise to abolish mandatory retirement.

Banning the archaic practice of arbitrary retirement due to age is only a start toward freeing academia from ageist stereotypes. At least four additional steps will ensure this promise becomes reality.

First, specific initiatives are needed to be undertaken to reintegrate faculty involuntarily retired in the past few years back into their departments and academic communities. Faculty associations, administrators and departments must work co-operatively in this effort. The title “emeritus” ought to be given real meaning. Universities should support post-retirement research efforts and travel budgets. To this end, administrators could develop senior scholar/retiree research centres such as those pioneered by the University of Toronto and many universities in the United States. Certainly, academic units should provide an opportunity for emeritus faculty to serve on committees and influence policy. Of course, they must be compensated appropriately for their teaching and other duties and assigned office space.

Second, there is no reason for universities to wait for governments to act. The administration and faculty association at the University of Toronto ended mandatory retirement in advance of the deadline set by the Ontario government. Other Ontario universities are following this example. No university in Canada need have a forced retirement policy. The current laws outside of Ontario and Quebec merely make it legal to do so, and sadly most universities and some faculty associations have embraced the practice. All that is required is for faculty representatives and administrators to agree to change existing policies.

Third, administrators and faculty organizations should review the entire retirement process. The “one size fits all” approach to human resources management is clearly dysfunctional for both sides. A more logical arrangement is to provide a range of flexible retirement options including early, gradual and partial retirement.

Fourth, concrete actions are needed to ensure older faculty members have a home in the academy. When mandatory retirement forces exit at age 65, there is little incentive for those in their 60s to assume administrative positions that they will not be able to complete. Concomitantly, there is reduced motivation to apply for, or commence, multi-year research projects. Under conditions of mandated retirement, academics may slow down as future opportunities are closed off.

Once forced retirement is removed, professors over 60 will have the option of catching their second wind and moving into new vistas of research. However, this will not happen automatically, especially since for decades the message for academics has been that new research projects were reserved for younger faculty. University administrations and faculty associations must fashion research programs and supports targeted to senior faculty.

It is only when ageist policies are rooted out and stereotypical attitudes challenged that a vibrant, diverse and innovative academy can come into existence.

1 AUCC, Trends in Higher Education, 2002, p. 22.
2 Jerry Berberet, Carole J. Bland, Betsy E. Brown & Kelly R. Risbey, “Late career faculty perceptions: Implications for retirement planning and policymaking,” Research Dialogue, no. 84, TIAA-CREF Institute, June 2005, pp. 5, 7.

Thomas R. Klassen is associate professor and co-ordinator of the public policy and administration program in political science at York University. Contact Klassen at David MacGregor is professor and chair of sociology at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. Contact MacGregor at Klassen and MacGregor, along with C. T. Gillin, are co-editors of Time’s Up!, a CAUT series title published last year by James Lorimer & Company.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.