Henry Pogorzelski can often be found riding his antique bike around campus or scribbling math theorems from the comfort of his bed, but this semester he cannot be found in front of a classroom.
After 32 years at the University of Maine, the 79-year-old math professor was suspended last semester by the administration, and Pogorzelski fears that plans are in the works to fire him.
“It’s a very serious matter to fire a tenured faculty,” Pogorzelski said. “It’s like going through a divorce, and the only reason I can think that they would want to do this is age discrimination.”
Pogorzelski said problems between him and the university began nearly two years ago, but culminated with his suspension last December in connection to a complaint that he pushed a student in his MAT 111 class shortly before finals week. Following the complaint, administration placed Pogorzelski under investigation and immediately removed him as instructor of the course. Arrangements were also made to have someone else administer the final exam to his class, an exam he was not allowed to write.
“They posted a police officer in front of the exam room in case I showed up with my exam,” Pogorzelski said.
Pogorzelski said the incident was flagrant discrimination and an attempt to get rid of him since he has refused, thus far, to retire. He goes as far as to allege that the dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Rebecca Eilers, framed him for pushing the female student.
In a letter to Pushpa Gupta, the chair of the peer committee in the Math Department, Pogorzelski wrote, “Let me heavily underline, I have absolutely no recollection of my ‘pushing a student’ nor exactly who it involves, when, where and how. I find it all unbelievable, totally unethical, unfair and tends to make me suspicious of administrative foul play.”
Pogorzelski is not alone in his fight.
“They point their fingers at him because they don’t like how he moves, and they don’t like how he talks,” said Maha Sabawi, Pogorzelski’s personal research and teaching assistant, who is not an employee of the university.
Before the suspension, Pogorzelski felt that the university’s administration followed him closely and took a “zero tolerance” stance on his actions.
“After 30 years at UMaine, once I refused to retire, administrative harassment and abuses commences with a vengeance,” Pogorzelski said. “My publications and research were discredited, my research allotment rescinded, and my courses in my area of specialization were eliminated.”
His specialty for the past three decades, and the reason he was originally hired, was to teach a logic foundation course, which was originally numbered MAT 105/106. However, changes in the Math Department renumbered the course to MAT 301, although it remains a general education math course.
“MAT 105/106 got renumbered because it is probably better for students with a couple years of college under their belts,” George Markowsky, the chair of the Math Department and a professor of computer science, said. “We just didn’t think it was a course for first-year students.”
Pogorzelski feels that the renumbering was an attempt by the department and college to decrease his class sizes and eventually led to the discontinuation of the class last semester.
“Even when students did call to register for the class, they were told that the class was being canceled because the professor was in poor health,” Sabawi said. “That was not true.”
According to Eilers, the renumbering was a departmental decision to rework the curriculum and re-sequence the courses to make it more logical.
“All departments do it from time to time,” she said.
Eilers was unable to comment on Pogorzelski’s claims on abuse and discrimination, citing that it was a personnel matter that she could not discuss further but said that there is no retirement age at UMaine.
“The faculty spans the whole age range from 20 to 60, 70 and sometimes 80. There is no mandatory retirement age at the University of Maine.”
Mandatory retirement ages have been made illegal by the federal government.
According to The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA’s protections apply to both employees and job applicants. Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to any term or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments and training.
Despite the ADEA, studies have shown that discrimination continually creeps into the workplace. A five-year research effort conducted by the Commonwealth Fund reported that one million workers aged 50 to 64 believed that they would be forced to retire before they were ready. Most of this group, anticipating an unwanted early retirement, said they would have preferred to work for years longer. Another survey, found that 5.4 million older Americans – one in seven of those 55 and older who were not working at that time – were willing to work but could not find a suitable job.
“They criminalize you when you say you don’t want to retire,” Sabawi said.
Pogorzelski, who was honored in the 2000 edition of “Outstanding Scientists of the 20th Century,” said he has been a target of abuse within the Math Department. He was disciplined by the former chair of the Math Department, Paula Petric, for not showing up to office hours. As a result, Pogorzelski’s salary was cut by $1,500. Pogorzelski also said that she increased his commitments on campus, by scheduling unnecessary meetings and making his classes earlier in the morning, as to affect his routine and health.
“In the afternoons, the professor used to have time to read and do research in his bed. It was a time for him to rest his body, but Petric took this away,” Sabawi said. “He has an appetite for work, but he can not put in long hours on his feet.”
Sabawi said that Petric, a professor of history, was made chair of the Math Department through an agreement with Eilers that she would make the changes in the department the dean wanted to see. However, Eilers says that there was simply no other suitable candidate within the department who wanted the position.
Sabawi and Pogorzelski also said they believe Petric filled his personnel file with poor student evaluations and information that might discredit his research and work in the community, as well as his classes. The department, at this time, also reviewed his lecture notes and class materials for MAT 111, which he felt was mislabeled as “College Algebra” and began calling it “High School Algebra from a College Standpoint.”
“I took it to be my academic responsibility to develop my high school algebra courses aimed at getting my students to learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematics,” said Pogorzelski in a letter to UMaine Faculty Senate President John Maddaus.
Despite the challenges that Pogorzelski feels face him, he hopes to continue to try and share his love of math with students. With his suspension recently downgraded to a “separation,” Pogorzelski is actively seeking students to enroll in MAT 301, by advertising in The Maine Campus.
“I love the university, and I love teaching,” Pogorzelski said. “I don’t understand why they want to kick me out.”