Volume 12, Number 16 April 15, 2005

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Trend of challenging mandatory retirement starting to reach U of S

By Lawrence McMahen

Mandatory retirement appears to be an idea whose time is rapidly slipping away across Canada – and that trend may soon hit the University of Saskatchewan.

The question of continuing or ending the practice is particularly acute at universities across the country, where some faculty approaching their mid-60s feel able and eager to carry on with their academic work.

Some provinces have now said mandatory retirement should end. As a result, in Quebec, for instance, all universities have abolished it. Alberta has directed against it, although only the University of Calgary is complying. Manitoba and P.E.I. have taken steps to end the practice. And the Ontario government is set to outlaw forced retirement. Last month the University of Toronto and its faculty association signed a landmark agreement to end mandatory retirement this summer.

In Saskatchewan, the Human Rights Code protects people against age discrimination only up to 65, so employers forcing people to quit at that age or older can’t be challenged. The U of S collective agreements with faculty and staff set the “normal” retirement age for faculty and staff at 67 for those in the academic pension plan and 65 for those in the non-academic pension plan. And the University enforces those retirement ages as its rule.

But three local professors who were forcibly retired in the early 1990s are now pushing for an end to mandatory retirement at the U of S.

And while they haven’t succeeded yet, there is are signs that the Faculty Association and the University’s administration are willing to consider it.

In recent months retired professors John Owen (Community Health & Epidemiology), Keith Johnstone (English), and Sergey Fedoroff (Anatomy & Cell Biology) have spoken to leaders in the Faculty Association, the University’s administration and Saskatchewan politics – and they say they’ve received a friendly hearing.

Faculty Association Chair Bob Gander says the issue “is certainly on our minds” as they head into new collective bargaining with the University this spring. “It’s definitely an issue”, Gander says, although it may not rank as a priority when negotiations get going. He believes “it’s a gradually growing feeling that there isn’t a need for (mandatory retirement).” And contrary to the argument by some that large numbers of old faculty would stay on and on, Gander says that after the U.S. eliminated mandatory retirement, the average age of faculty retirements there edged up by only a year or two.

U of S Vice-Provost Jim Germida says if the issue is raised the administration will look at it. He knows there are people “who are extremely productive and can contribute well beyond normal retirement age” – but he adds there are many considerations to take into account, such as implications for pensions, and the need for effective performance reviews.

“What we need is the flexibility to talk with people about it,” Germida says.

Owen, Fedoroff and Johnstone raised the issue with U of S President Peter MacKinnon, who noted it falls in the realm of the collective agreement with faculty.

Some U of S professors, including Fedoroff and Johnstone, are given emeritus status upon retirement and are eligible for privileges like office space. Fedoroff works in the University’s Neuropsychiatric Research Unit and has an office and computer, but no lab. “And no salary – I’m a volunteer.”

He and Owen say while some used to argue for mandatory retirement to provide space for new, young faculty – now that argument has turned on its head: Many universities, like the U of S, have trouble recruiting mid-career or senior faculty, and need to retain some of their experienced, top professors in order to maintain the national or international reputation of their department.

Fedoroff notes the U of S is now trying to bolster its world-class standing in many fields, “and you can’t build that with juniors”.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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