From Scapegoating to Mandatory Retirement?

I find it deeply ironic that the Ford Government, which intended to appoint a 72 year old  to a three year term as Commissioner of the OPP, is expressing concern about the increasing average retirement age of university faculty.

This concern appears in the 2019 Ontario budget under the rubric of “ensuring a dynamic university workforce,” in which the government refers to faculty who “are drawing salary and pension payments at the same time” and gives notice that it will introduce unspecified amendments to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities Act.

Let’s first deal with the question of drawing salary and pension at the same time, sometimes disparagingly – but erroneously – referred to as double-dipping. Pensions represent an individual’s savings. If a pension plan allows it, why shouldn’t an individual draw on her savings while working? The Canada Pension plan allows workers to both receive and contribute to CPP between the ages of 65 and 70. A number of Ontario universities allow faculty to receive their pension while working. The Ford Government will likely be tempted to accuse professors of double-dipping and legislate an end to the practice. This would be another instance of Ontario’s “government of the people” defining enemies of the people (like appointed judges or radical student leaders) and scapegoating them.

All pension plans require members to stop contributing and start receiving their pensions at a certain age, regardless of whether they are still working. For CPP, it is at 70. For registered pension plans and for RRSPs it is in December of the year the member turns 71. So the aforementioned Ron Taverner was already double-dipping and, had he served as Commissioner of the OPP, would be double-dipping.

The broader intention of the government is to replace higher-salaried older professors with younger ones who are less expensive, acquainted with “new teaching methods,” and more diverse. But will this replacement actually happen? Based on my experience as a university administrator during the Harris Government, I am very skeptical. The Ford Government has already mandated university budget cuts with its 10 percent tuition cut and subsequent freeze. The new budget announced an average annual cut in government grants of 1 percent. In order to make these cuts, it is more likely that universities will simply not replace retiring faculty, or at most replace some of their teaching with inexpensive sessional instructors (at a going rate of approximately $10,000 per course).

The Ford Government was trumpeting the tuition cut as putting more money in the pockets of students. But they forgot to mention that in education, as in most of life, you get what you pay for, so by reducing tuition fees, the government is causing the quality of the service to deteriorate. This is something the premier might not have realized, but other ministers, who have had the benefits of post-secondary education, surely would have. Perhaps cabinet solidarity bids them hold their tongues.

The budget says nothing about the value of senior faculty members. They have wisdom and experience that can inform their research, teaching, and university service. Students have told me numerous times that they appreciate the perspective I bring to the classroom based on a (now lengthy) lifetime of experience. Senior faculty members may not be as au courant as freshly-minted Ph.D.’s with some of the latest research techniques, but they will have a much better sense of which questions are worth pursuing and which aren’t. Finally, senior faculty members can serve as mentors for both younger colleagues and for students.

The budget says that the government will consult with the university sector on how best to achieve faculty renewal. Here are some options.

Because there are precedents that unequivocally establish that mandatory retirement is inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Liberties, the government could invoke the notwithstanding clause to put in place a mandatory retirement policy of its own or give the universities the right to adopt such policies. This would provoke strong reaction, not only from university faculty and their associations, but from civil libertarians. Despite its possible appeal to the Ford Government’s base, I don’t think it would be worth the controversy.

Universities could put in place their own voluntary retirement incentives. A few years ago the U of T had such an incentive and I remember several colleagues telling me that, to take advantage of it, they retired sooner than they had originally planned. The U of T has a phased retirement program, but it is only for faculty approaching age 66. It could be extended to older faculty.

Older faculty currently can stay on as long as they fulfill their job requirements (teaching, research, service). But most faculty want to have some time to enjoy retirement. The university could approach these senior faculty members – in a collegial and voluntary way – to discuss their career goals and life goals, and the implications for their tenure at the university.

I hope, and perhaps it is a faint hope, that the government approaches the discussions with the universities about faculty renewal with a spirit of openness, rather than an agenda of scapegoating and ratcheting down cost. Older faculty members make important contributions to the quality of higher education students experience and the body of scholarship society enjoys.

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