Monday, June 05, 2017

UK: Academics challenge Oxford over forced retirement

Ageing academics at the University of Oxford are challenging rules that force them to retire at 67, arguing that the age cap makes the institution uncompetitive.

Under the rules, academics must retire by September 30 in the year before their 68th birthday. Although some may continue to work under a short-term contract, they must re-apply to keep their job.

Heated debates between opposing sides of the dispute have taken place at the ancient Sheldonian Theatre where the university’s governing body, the congregation, meets.

The dispute has been described by participants as a battle between “old, white men . . . hanging limpet-like to space and resource” and “talented young scholars . . . trying to get their first stable job”, according to Times Higher Education magazine.

In 2011 legislation scrapped the default retirement age, which meant that employers could no longer require that staff left when they turned 65.

However, employers were allowed to set up schemes enforcing retirement at a particular age if they could prove, if challenged at tribunal, that it was a “proportionate way of achieving legitimate aims”.

Only 3 per cent of employers have taken advantage of this exemption. However, Oxford did, arguing that to allow for fairness between generations, greater diversity and career progression a retirement age of 67 should be set. Similar arrangements are also in place at the universities of Cambridge and St Andrews.

Part of the Oxford scheme was that it would be reviewed in 2016 and as a result the retirement age will move up to 68. However, some academics have challenged it and want it scrapped.

Their motion was debated by the congregation on May 16, but was overwhelmingly rejected. Now campaigners have triggered a postal ballot of all 5,000 members of the congregation in a last attempt to get their way.

John Ball, 69, a maths professor who negotiated continuing employment, said that the rules were not helping diversity but were deterring the world’s best academics from taking up positions there.

“The rules make Oxford uncompetitive in recruiting and retaining world-class talent,” he said. “There is little or no evidence that since 2011 the rules have contributed significantly to the laudable aims, in particular intergenerational fairness and diversity.”

He suggested “voluntary tapered retirement arrangements”, that would help academics to hold on to research grants and not put off applicants from home or abroad.

Other academics have argued that postdoctoral students would be left without a supervisor and have their funding jeopardised.

However, Bill Allan, 47, a tutorial fellow in classics at University College, Oxford, said that this was not the case. “The argument peddled by the opponents of the retirement age that the postdoctoral students depend on them is nonsense. If they retired, the university would appoint no less eminent researchers, but perhaps younger and more diverse, who would create just as many opportunities for postdoctoral and graduate students,” he said.

The decision to scrap the default retirement age in 2011 has led the number working beyond 65 to soar. There are now 1.19 million people working past their 65th birthday, compared with 600,000 in 2006.

Despite this, most employers report that most staff still want to retire in their mid-sixties. Those who want to carry on are often offered reduced hours or a different role.


CUNY's Curious Defense of Linda Sarsour

In an era when saying the wrong thing, deemed offensive by someone, can end a career, social justice warriors always seem to get a pass. Few have received more than Linda Sarsour, a Muslim self-styled "feminist" who supports a political system that systematically represses women, celebrates child warriors on social media, and once tweeted of two ideological foes, "I wish I could take away their vaginas – they don't deserve to be women."

The more Sarsour offends, the more she is celebrated. Barack Obama honored her as a Champion of Change. Today she will give the keynote address at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health graduation ceremony.

Sarsour's endorsement of Sharia law and leadership in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement should have made her an unfit candidate to address graduates of any educational institution even if she weren't a social media provocateur. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the women whose vagina Sarsour wants to confiscate, calls her a "fake feminist." Brigitte Gabriel, the other woman, calls Sarsour a "master manipulator" successfully swaying "the gullible women's movement."

Sarsour's endorsement of Sharia and leadership in the BDS movement make her unfit to address university graduates.

Ariel Behar of IPT News wrote that Sarsour specializes in trying "to shut down those who cite her record of celebrating terrorists and advocating radical positions by calling the critics Islamophobes." Sarsour is also a conspiracy theorist, endorsing, for instance, the bizarre view that failed "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was "a CIA agent."

Sarsour's defenders claim that her views stem from anger and "should come as no surprise for a Palestinian-American;" after all what she really opposes is "right-wing Zionism." Sarsour has said that Zionists – including the vast majority of Jews – can't be feminists. She didn't say only "right-wing Zionists" can't be feminists.

Why would the CUNY want to showcase someone who, as Daniel Pipes documents, has such a "long record of incompetence, extremism, vulgarity, and eccentricity"? Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat in the New York Assembly, says "it's just nuts. It makes no sense. It's crazy to have this woman be the person who's going to speak to the students."

In an effort to explain, CUNY Chancellor James B. Millikin released an April 26 statement saying that while the views Sarsour "reportedly" has on Israel are "anathema to the values of higher education," forgoing a commencement speech by Sarsour "would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom."

Arguments in favor of Sarsour's appearance grossly misunderstand free speech and academic freedom.

Much the same argument was made by five CUNY professors in a spirited but sophomoric defense of Sarsour's right to speak at the academic blog InsideHigherEd. Two of the five, Meena Alexander and Rosalind Patchesky, are known for their anti-Israel activism.

But these arguments conflate and grossly misunderstand free speech and academic freedom. Which speakers a university, even a public one, invites to deliver commencement speeches is not a First Amendment issue. This is not a matter of deciding whether to allow this or that student demonstration or campus guest lecture to take place; it's a formal endorsement, not of what the speaker says, but of the speaker's qualifications and ability to inspire an audience. Of course Sarsour has a First Amendment right to her anti-Zionism and even to her anti-Semitism. But CUNY does not have a First Amendment obligation to honor her or provide a platform for her.

Academic freedom is another thing entirely. Sarsour is not a CUNY faculty member, or even an academic. Even if she were, her academic freedom would only be violated if Millikin tried to influence the content of her teaching.

CUNY does not have a First Amendment obligation to honor Islamists.

Those who cite Columbia University's hosting of a lecture by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a precedent are missing the point entirely. Having a morbid intellectual curiosity perform live for the benefit of scientific observation is one thing. Inviting one to give parting words of advice to your student body is another thing altogether.

If Millikin really found Sarsour's support for BDS (no need for the qualifier "reportedly") "anathema to the values of higher education," as chancellor he could have easily overridden her selection. This is what likely happens all the time in nearly every academic institution when someone suggests a conservative speaker be invited.

The problem, most likely, is that Sarsour received far more faculty support than any conservative who ever made it past the first round of nominations at CUNY.

If university administrators want to wilt under pressure and allow this kind of spectacle to take place, they should at least find the courage not to cite the First Amendment and academic freedom as the reasons.


Boston College High School in ferment over co-education

A bit surprising in "progressive" Massachusetts

The chairman of the trustees at Boston College High School has left the board as part of a massive restructuring that aims to restore confidence and transparency in its leadership, following a public uproar about the idea of admitting female students to the all-boys institution.

It remains unclear whether John McQuillan, the chairman who faced heated accusations from parents and alumni about allegedly orchestrating a coeducation movement, resigned or was forced out. About two dozen other trustees, from both sides of the coeducation debate, have also left the board, according to the new roster of trustees.

In announcing the changes, the board of the school, which was founded in 1863, reaffirmed that it has no plans to allow female students to attend.

The outgoing board of trustees announced the changes late Wednesday afternoon in a letter to the BC High community, two days after the board decided to dramatically shrink the number of trustees serving the Dorchester school. The new board has 12 members, down from nearly three dozen.

“As you know, the board is composed of many good people who care about the school’s mission and ensuring its future,” according to the letter, which was obtained by the Globe. “We acknowledge that, in recent months, communications to the school community have not worked as we would have liked, and the resulting rumors and articles in the press have created confusion and unease among our community.”

For the past two months, BC High has been embroiled in controversy over speculation that some trustees wanted the school to go coed in an attempt to reverse a slide in applications. The idea proved unpopular among many parents and alumni, and a Jesuit leader warned trustees that Cardinal Sean O’Malley opposed a coed BC High out of concern it could put some all-girl Catholic schools out of business.

McQuillan, who had been dodging questions about the coeducation controversy, finally addressed the issue directly last week in a public statement, saying that the time was not right for the institution to consider admitting female students.

The board, in an attempt to put that controversy behind it, reaffirmed its position Wednesday that BC High should remain an all-boys institution and would continue with a Catholic focus, even as it faces future enrollment challenges that many other Catholic schools are also grappling with.

“The new board of trustees is committed to working with the Jesuit Provincial’s Office and the Archdiocese of Boston to address these challenges,” the letter said. “The new board is in unanimous agreement that we are not pursuing an option to convert BC High into a coeducational institution. And, as a group, we are reaffirming BC High’s Jesuit, Catholic identity.”

Many parents and alumni, though, remain skeptical that the shake-up in trustees will help the school turn the corner. One chief concern is that the board, in making its announcement, did not explain how decisions were made in terms of which trustees would remain on the board and which would leave.

“Everything regarding this board has been a comedy of errors,” said Greg Vasil, a parent. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in this lineup.”

And he added, “For a school stressing diversity, shame on the board of trustees that no one of color is on the board.”

The one trustee of color, John Barros, who graduated in 1992 and is the city’s chief of economic development, is leaving the board. Other well-known trustees who are exiting include Jack Dunn, a spokesman for Boston College; Joseph Corcoran, of the Corcoran Jennison Companies, a development firm near the BC High campus; and Patrick Cadigan, Anne Hajjar, and John Hajjar II.

The chairman of the new board is the Rev. Brian Conley, a Jesuit; the vice chairwoman is Kelly Verrochi, president of Thrive Inc., a leadership consulting firm; and the secretary is Paul McManus Jr., a wealth manager. The immediate goals of the new board are to seat a new president, to begin the healing process throughout the community, and to rebuild the board over time, according to the letter.

The board initially began discussions about changing its composition at a meeting last week at a law firm McQuillan uses for his environmental cleanup business. The proposal was introduced as the board gathered to discuss differences among board members, some of which stemmed from a divide on the coeducation issue.

BC High officials on Wednesday would not release details about the deliberations and would not disclose the criteria used for deciding who would remain on the board.

Joe Donahue, a trustee who left the board about a year ago, said he viewed the change in trustees as a positive development.

“There’s collateral damage on both sides,” he said. “It’s time to move on and run a school. . . . If the board stays true to the school’s mission and traditions, they will do fine.”


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