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“A glaring need for younger talent” – Age discrimination in higher education?

by on September 25, 2014

The Inside Higher Ed website in the USA features this article about a recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court allowing a claim for age discrimination to proceed to trial. The claim is brought by ‘a longtime adjunct instructor of English’ (I think this is the equivalent of a sessional lecturer in the UK) at Clark College. She accuses the College of age discrimination in not selecting her for a tenure-track job (permanent academic post). Although the labels may be different, the distinction between these different types of university employment will be familiar to those working in UK universities which often employ sessional lecturers to part of their programmes.

In this case, the claimant Kathryn Scrivener had been at the College since 1994 as a part-time adjunct and had been a “temporary” full-time instructor since 1999. She was 55 at the time of not getting the tenure track position. Apparently, her claim is based on statements made by the College’s then-president during a college-wide speech in 2006, the year she did not get a tenure-track job. According to the article, he allegedly said that there was a “glaring need” for younger talent among the faculty. He also allegedly advocated hiring instructors with no experience for the open positions in the English Department, which Scrivener argues hinted at bias against older applicants. She said he also impersonated Jon Stewart, host of the “Daily Show,” in her interview and said he wanted applicants with “funk,” which she interpreted to mean “youthfulness.”

Scrivener’s lawyer says she feels confident in her client’s case,  because of the former College president’s statements regarding a “protected class” (i.e. applicants over 40 years old who are protected from age discrimination in US states).

The article also examines the wider age related implications of what can seem like a two tier career system in universities and is worth a read. It makes the point that people are being appointed into academic posts at older ages than before but wonders if this is a problem with a young student body. (Maybe the student body is getting older in some places, too!).

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