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St John’s professor sues University over ‘forced retirement’

Court documents indicate “succession planning” and “diversity” were used by the college to justify the decision

A fellow at St. John’s College claims that he was forced to retire two years ago in order to meet workplace diversity expectations, an employment tribunal has heard.

Prof. John Pitcher, an English professor who has taught at the college since 1982, had plans to work past the university retirement age of 67. However, he was allegedly told by the College that he would have to retire from his job, which brings an annual salary of £83,000, at the age of 67.

Although an initial retirement date had been set for 2012, Pitcher was made a Founder’s Fellow of the college, with a fixed contract until 2020. He undertook a fundraising position within the college under the assumption he would be employed up until then, and now claims he was “forcibly retired” four years prior to the agreed date.

The move by St John’s to enforce the initial retirement date apparently came under Oxford’s Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy, which sets a compulsory retirement age at 68.

Pitcher has since taken his case to an employment tribunal, where he is now suing the University for £100,000 for loss of earnings after an internal appeal was rejected.

Court documents from the case indicate that the college believed the move was necessary to “safeguard the high standard” and to move towards “inter-generation fairness”, with “succession planning” and “diversity” also used to justify the move.

President of St. John’s College, Maggie Snowling, echoed these documents in a witness statement: “The EJRA helped both the college and the university take steps towards a more diverse academic body and will continue to do so.

“It is a proportionate means of ensuring increasing diversity and intergenerational fairness.”

Professor Pitcher said: “I believe that decision was discriminatory because of age and was not justified and was also unfair.

“The EJRA for both the college and university which applied to me applied a retirement age of 67 years that retained the status quo from the mid-1980s.

“This age is far too low and I can see that I would be able to carry on working, as would many of my colleagues, well into my mid-70s.

“I felt it was unfair that I had to try and ‘convince’ the university and college panels that my continued employment was appropriate.”

The English Fellow added: “None of these other institutions have reduced their standards by not forcibly retiring staff. There is no evidence to support the need to ‘refresh’ the academic workforce in terms of turnover.

“The university is effectively seeking to justify discrimination on the grounds of age in order to promote equality and diversity of other protected characteristics.

“I fully accept the importance of equality and diversity. I am myself from a working class background and the importance of these kinds of social aims weighs strongly with me.

“I did not wish to retire, as I did not see the relevance of my age to my ability to carry out the duties of my post in research or teaching for the duties of the Founder’s Fellow.”

Professor Pitcher was given the option of reapplying for his job, though appears to have decided against the move.

He noted: “Trying to satisfy an unreasonably high threshold test that I am virtually indispensable to the university when I had given decades of impeccable service is degrading and humiliating.”

There have been successful internal appeals against the University’s compulsory retirement age in the past. In 2014, Denis Galligan, a law professor at Wolfson College, challenged his set retirement age of 67. Peter Edwards, a professor of inorganic chemistry at St. Catherine’s College was also allowed to keep his job at 69.

Cambridge is the only other Russell Group university to have such a policy.

The University of Oxford declined to comment. St. John’s College were contacted for comment.

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