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Adjuncts and age discrimination

Credit: G. Grullón

Why is it that when universities look to hire tenure-track faculty members, they almost never consider the adjuncts that are already teaching on their campuses and have been, in some cases, for a number of years? These academics presumably have already demonstrated their ability to teach their institutions’ students. What disqualifies them from permanent positions?

One answer, according to a growing number of court cases, may be age discrimination, reports Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed. In September, the Supreme Court of Washington state sided with Kathryn Scrivener, an instructor at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, who claimed that statements by the institution’s president about the “glaring need” to bring younger people into the faculty provide a sufficient basis for a trial in her age discrimination suit: She was 55 at the time of the incident. Scrivener has twice lost out to applicants younger than 40.

Whether this is a definite trend or not, I don’t know, but there’s been an increase of these cases, and that’s a good thing.

—Maria Maisto

In July, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Harold Washington College in Chicago on behalf of 66-year-old Nancy Sullivan, an adjunct passed over for a full-time job in favor of younger applicants with less experience. “Colleges and universities have long occupied a highly regarded place in this country and enjoyed a special status, but they are not above the law,” says John Hendrickson, EEOC’s Chicago regional attorney, in a statement. “When they factor age into employment decisions and deny adjuncts and others opportunities because of their age, that is a violation of federal law, and the institutions are going to be held accountable.”

“Whether this is a definite trend or not, I don’t know, but there’s been an increase of these cases, and that’s a good thing,” says Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an organization pushing to improve the working conditions of adjuncts, as quoted at Inside Higher Ed.

Another category of temporary academic workers—postdocs—also has difficulty moving into career positions in academe. Some European countries have tried to remedy this with rules requiring that postdocs be offered permanent staff positions in order to stay on longer than 5 years. From postdocs’ point of view, however, the good intentions often backfire; especially since the financial collapse, they have often resulted in terminations rather than better jobs.

The widespread preference for young workers has been extensively documented and plays a prominent role in claims of a science, math, engineering and technology worker shortage, but it has a particular irony in academe. For the past 20 years, tenured professors have had legal protection against forced retirement and can continue working as long as they wish. The faculty’s average age has risen as a result. Some professors stay on into their 70s, 80s, or longer, even as they lose thousands of dollars a year in retirement incentives, according to a National Academies report.

In just one of the many examples of academe's mistreatment of the contingent workers who form the majority of the nation’s teaching faculty, the people allegedly ignoring experienced applicants because of their age are themselves immune to such discrimination.