Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Litigation Watch: Ex-USM staffers claim age discrimination

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In complaints filed with the University of Southern Maine's Office of Campus Diversity and Equity, a state legislator and five former colleagues allege they were discriminated against in a recent department restructuring because of their ages. The complainants' ages range between 56 and 63.

Chad Hansen, the attorney representing all six — including state senator Larry Bliss, the former director of the career services office — says while he is at "just the very beginning of the process," additional complaints have been filed through the USM employees' union, and filings are in the works with the Maine Human Rights Commission, a possible prelude to a settlement or lawsuits.

In the restructuring, which combined three departments tasked with helping students handle academics, plan for careers, and handle non-academic issues, eliminated 21 jobs and created 19 new ones — but left six of the new slots vacant — "all the older folks were let go; the younger folks were retained," Hansen says, which "totally stripped the system" of experienced people.

A big part of the problem for the complainants is the six positions left unfilled — "it's not as if they're saying, 'we had to make tough choices between good people,'" Hansen says. The university just simply didn't hire anyone for those positions, though they "hired back all of the younger folks," he says.

Messages left for Daryl McIlwain, associate director of Campus Diversity and Equity, were returned by USM's public affairs department. Spokesman Bob Caswell says three departments — one each handling academic advising, career counseling, and non-academic student needs — were merged into the Office of Student Success, in "one of the most significant reorganizations of an administrative structure ever undertaken here."

Caswell says the search was "open and fair" and found to be equitable by human-resources staff at USM and the wider University of Maine System, as well as by representatives of the employees' union.

While Caswell says the purpose was to improve student retention and graduation and "was never to save money," he did admit that the six unfilled positions were left "open for budgetary reasons." The university has faced budget crunches and student-retention problems for years.

"Advising has kind of been like a nightmare for me," says student Matt Dodge, describing requirements that students meet with advisors before registering for classes each semester, and frequent changes in who his advisor is.