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EEOC Taking Aim at Age Discrimination in Acadamia

Age discrimination rears its ugly head not only when workers are terminated because of their age, but also when well-qualified individuals are unable to find a job because they are "too old".

IIn a recent case, Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago system, has been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for its refusal to hire a woman due to her age. According to the EEOC, the college violated federal labor laws when it denied a faculty position to an adjunct professor because she was 66 years old. After an initial investigation, the EEOC found that the plaintiff worked as an adjunct professor for five years before applying to become a full-time faculty member. She had all of the necessary credentials, records, and glowing recommendations from other staff members. According to the EEOC, the professor was passed over for younger and less experienced candidates—a clear case of age discrimination.

The EEOC said in the suit that Nancy Sullivan, who had worked for the college as an adjunct English, speech and theater professor from 2006 to 2012, applied for three open full-time positions in Harold Washington's English department. But, despite Sullivan's qualifications and recommendations from other English faculty, those positions ultimately went to people who were "younger and less qualified than Sullivan," the EEOC's complaint said.

The complaint said that Harold Washington in September 2011 posted the three openings for full-time faculty jobs in the college's English department. Sullivan applied for the positions, and provided positive recommendations from at least three other members of the English faculty, with whom she had worked during her time as an adjunct professor, according to the EEOC.

After she was denied a full-time position, with the job openings being given to younger applicants, Harold Washington kept Sullivan on as an adjunct professor, the EEOC said.

"The effect of the practices … has been to deprive Sullivan of equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect her status as an employee, because of her age," the complaint said.

The EEOC explained that its suit follows an investigation that in August 2013 led the agency to conclude that Harold Washington potentially violated the ADEA. Although the EEOC invited the school to engage in informal conciliation, Harold Washington declined, the complaint said.

The EEOC said in a statement that it wants to remind all colleges and universities that they are not above the law when pursuing certain hiring practices. Any time that a higher educational institution denies adjunct professors and other employees certain opportunities because of their age is in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Under this law, employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants because of their age (over 40). This lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Illinois, after the agency attempted to reach a settlement.

Nationwide, universities and colleges and most businesses are seeking to diversify their workforce. Despite the purported effort to diversify, applicants over the age of 40 have found hiring practices to be discriminatory. Even with proper credentials, an extended work history, and proven abilities, many older applicants have found that they cannot compete with newly minted Ph.D. holders. The EEOC is paying closer attention to the business of higher education and has filed more than one claim against universities, including San Francisco State University for hiring a 31-year-old with no Ph.D. over a 61-year-old with 30 years of experience.

The takeaway: If you are an academic and you have experienced age discrimination, be sure to contact an employment law attorney experienced in handling discrimination cases.

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