Institution draws fire as older staff let go

October 6, 2006

Ontario campus accused of last-minute cost-cutting, writes Philip Fine

The province of Ontario has introduced an age discrimination law that will make it illegal to force university staff to retire at 65.

The law takes effect in December, making Ontario the eighth among 13 provinces and territories either to abolish mandatory retirement or rule the practice discriminatory.

The law ending mandatory retirement was approved last year. The Government offered institutions a one-year transition period to implement the change.

Most universities in the province allowed professors who reached the age of 65 in 2006, before the law came into effect, to stay on. Many accepted that since the practice had been ruled discriminatory, they should ban the practice before the law kicked in.

Only one of the province's 18 universities recognises 2006 as a year of mandatory retirement. The University of Windsor has terminated the full-time status of all its 2006 retirees, including 18 professors. It has been accused of taking advantage of the last few legal months of mandatory retirement to save money on salaries.

Windsor's faculty association said that bringing in new faculty, while releasing full-time staff whose experience put them on the top salary rungs, was financially motivated The association claims that the university has gone on a hiring spree, recruiting 422 tenure-track professors over the past eight years. Some departments have rehired retired academics as lower-paid sessional staff.

The university said it was a case of early planning - all retiring staff were replaced with "bridge" appointments and there were insufficient funds to keep on both sets of faculty.

Neil Gold, vice-president academic, rejected accusations of a cost-saving strategy, claiming that new staff weighed heavily on his budget when recruitment costs were factored in.

But, according to a university document, five of the new positions were introduced after the legislation was announced, meaning that Windsor could have avoided hiring replacements and kept on staff who were reaching 65.

Brian Brown, faculty association president, questioned why retiring staff could not carry on working. "If other universities can do this, why not Windsor?"

Observers say the episode suggests that legislation abolishing mandatory retirement might backfire. If governments give universities time to hire faculty to replace staff coming up for retirement, some might try to save money by shedding older, expensive faculty.

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