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Ageism Strikes

August 07th, 2012

Ralph Maud, a scholar on Indian myth and legend and a founding English Professor at Simon Fraser University, first met George Bowering at George Williams College in Montreal, in the mid-1960s, when Bowering was reading Ezra Pound’s Literary Essays. In this article, originally published in the Autumn 2001 issue of BC BookWorld, Maud at once pays tribute to colleague and friend Bowering on the occasion of his retirement, and indicts forced retirement as institutionalized ageism and a harbinger of cultural descent.

A few years ago, resisting compulsory retirement, some UBC professors took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada. They were anticipating their case would be dealt with as an age-discrimination issue. They expected their human rights would be upheld by the Canadian Constitution. This had occurred in a similar case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But no. The Canadian justices – with only two female judges dissenting, as I remember – found in favour of the university, not the professors. They said, in so many words, “We’ve got to give the young people a chance.” (A sociological argument, if I’ve ever heard one, nothing lawyerly about it – and, by the way, coming from people who keep their jobs until they’re 75. No giving young people a chance there!)

So, the universities now act accordingly and professors are made emeritus at 65. The term “emeritus”, by the way, has nothing to do with “merit”; it merely means, from the Latin, “out of service.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t make it illegal for universities to keep people on after 65, but I’ve heard of hardly any cases where professors have been allowed to continue.

At first we thought we had priced ourselves out of the market by insisting, if we were rehired, on being paid a sum commensurate with our dignity. After a few years this bit of unrealism was dropped and we offered ourselves on the level of any sessional instructor. Still no takers I am aware of.

One can see very well from an administrator’s point of view that “giving the young people a chance” is a slightly easier thing to do than bringing people in from pasture. The young instructors are pacing the corridors every day doing what they are doing and wanting more – and cheaper to hire than older professors.

Old professors, as the saying goes, are at home snoozing and “fishing up hooks”.

Someone like George Bowering smashes that cliché completely.

Here is a man who is widely acknowledged to be an amusing and well-read teacher. How can SFU waste this talent by not keeping him on, even if they do have the legal right to terminate the tenure?

I recently attended a farewell reading to mark George Bowering’s forced retirement after nearly 30 years on the SFU English faculty. It took place in the oak-paneled foyer of the Special Collections library, which houses the Contemporary Literature Collection. He has been advisor to this collection for many years, along with Roy Miki, who presented him on this farewell occasion.

A few old friends attended, notably poets Jamie Reid and Lionel Kearns; but mainly it was an overflow crowd of students, five of whom gave testimonial readings of Bowering poems of their own choice. It was a nice event, but something important was not fully addressed.

Again, why should a popular and effective teacher like George Bowering be retiring if he doesn’t want to?

I have not ascertained how much George Bowering doesn’t want to retire. Like any sensible person, he probably doesn’t consider it worthwhile to dwell on such a thing if his energies can be more productively used elsewhere. As is obvious by his prolific output, he still has many irons in the fire. But one thing is certain: Due to ageism, students in Canada will no longer benefit from the increasing wisdom – and considerable wit – of another vital, forcibly retired, all-Canadian poet-professor!

Essay Date: 2001

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