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Weakening tenure is an attack on academic freedom

Since World War II, Canadian and American universities have offered faculty members tenure, the promise of lifetime employment to those who complete a six- to 10-year probation period. During this time, professors’ teaching, writing and research are scrutinised by their colleagues to determine whether a tenured appointment is merited.

The tenure system arose during a period when qualified faculty were in short supply and, for many years, served as an important non-pecuniary tool for faculty recruitment. At the same time, tenure helped to bolster the academic freedom without which research universities in particular run the risk of being crippled by administrators and other functionaries committed to defending established corporate interests and familiar modes of thought.

Today the tenure system is under attack in both Canada and the US and may well disappear during the next few decades. In both countries, less than 30% of college and university instructors are currently tenured or on the tenure track. A growing number of college teachers are part-time ‘adjuncts’, hired by the course or on a short-term contract.

A chorus of tenure critics

Some commentators, of course, welcome the collapse of the tenure system, saying tenure provides job security for indolent and incompetent professors who spend their afternoons sipping sherry at the faculty club.

College administrators frequently claim that faculty tenure prevents them from adapting the curriculum more effectively to accommodate changes in the economy and to the patterns of student demand.

No doubt, there is some truth to these criticisms. There are lazy and incompetent tenured professors who drone their way through the same lectures year after year after year. Yet tenure, especially at research universities, is difficult to achieve.

Promotion to tenure requires a substantial record of research and publication, as well as evidence of an ongoing commitment to research. Tenure also requires evidence of teaching ability and a willingness to devote time to graduate and undergraduate students.

Often, tenure cases involve heated struggles among various faculty factions over the quality of a professor’s work. Mistakes are made in the process. Generally, however, those who achieve tenure are excellent, or at least promising, scholars and teachers whose commitment to their work does not end when they acquire job security.

In virtually every field of inquiry, it is the tenured faculty at research universities who produce the books, papers, reports, inventions and studies that drive the Canadian and American economies and make higher education one of their nations’ leading export industries. I do not believe that millions of foreign students come to America and Canada because our professors are known to be lazy and incompetent.

For most professors, tenure is not a licence to retire. It is, instead, an opportunity to work on intellectually exciting projects without the pressure to abandon important lines of inquiry simply because no immediate conclusion or pecuniary return is in sight.

And the charge that tenured faculty are hidebound and unwilling to adapt their teaching and research to the emergence of new areas of pedagogy and inquiry seems to miss a very important point. New fields emerge precisely because tenured or tenure-track professors create them.

Tenure crucial to academic freedom

Tenure is the chief guarantor of the intellectual freedom that makes it possible for faculty members to pursue new ideas and to teach concepts in the sciences and humanities that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Put simply, without tenure there is no academic freedom.

Where the faculty lacks the protection of tenure, university administrators are free to interfere in the classroom and in the laboratory – and they do so with alacrity. Where they can, administrators will interfere with even the most meritorious academic research, publication and communication if their results challenge the interests of important donors and constituencies or threaten administrators’ own interests.

Administrators are especially likely to interfere in the classroom if they are concerned that the views of donors and important college constituencies are not being treated with proper respect. In some instances, administrators will even organise classes or alter the content of existing courses to please important interests.

And, where they can, administrators will work diligently to suppress faculty criticism.

Take the experience of the ‘Phantom Professor’, the name used by a blogger who wrote about students’ use of illegal drugs, crime on campus, student stress, the campus social hierarchy and administrative shortcomings at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

University officials decided that the anonymous blogger was Elaine Liner, a well-regarded adjunct writing instructor on the Dallas campus. What did campus administrators do when faced with a bit of criticism? It almost goes without saying that they fired the suspected phantom.

Perhaps we should be relieved that the Phantom Professor only lost her job. At the Autonomous University of Sinaloa in Mexico a professor, Florencio Posadas Segura, who recently criticised his rector in a campus radio broadcast, was told that university authorities had ordered him banned from the station. Segura was also told: “Be careful what you say because a car could run you over.”

Tenure system unlikely to recover

It seems unlikely that the tenure system will ever recover. Except at the most elite academic levels, the promise of tenure is hardly needed these days to recruit professors.

Though the oversupply varies from field to field, in virtually every academic area graduate programmes have for years produced many more PhDs than could be absorbed by Canadian and American colleges and universities.

Currently, nearly a quarter of each year’s degree recipients are unable to find jobs in their fields. The situation is worse in the humanities and social sciences, but even in the sciences too many new PhDs are applying for too few positions.

The reasons for this overproduction are complex. They include myopic behaviour on the part of the professoriate, the end of mandatory retirement, and the effects of well-intentioned but misguided government financial aid policies.

Whatever the causes, though, the consequence is the existence of a large and ever-growing reserve army of unemployed or marginally employed PhDs who are available to staff courses in almost every conceivable field for far less than the minimum wage.

Bright, energetic and well-trained young PhDs often have no choice but to teach courses for minuscule salaries. Some adjuncts, known as ‘freeway flyers’, simultaneously teach courses at several different schools, hoping to make ends meet.

University administrators, more and more, turn to this growing pool of adjuncts to staff courses. Adjuncts are inexpensive, can be hired as needed – often at the last minute – and can be discarded at the end of the term if their courses no longer comport with administrative plans. Adjuncts do not require laboratories, offices, telephones, computers or support services.

Unlike tenured faculty, adjuncts do not play any real role in university governance. And adjuncts possess no claims to academic freedom. If administrators are even the least bit annoyed by the views expressed by an adjunct, whether inside or outside the classroom, they can simply refrain from hiring that individual again. Like the ‘Phantom Professor’, adjuncts who are not rehired disappear from the university without a trace.

Shift to adjuncts has not lowered tuition fees

This shift to contingent faculty, by the way, has not led to lower tuition costs for students and parents. Instead, the use of less-expensive faculty has allowed universities to employ more administrators and to pay them more.

The same American schools that pay adjuncts $2,500 per course with no benefits, pay seven-figure salaries – as much as $1 million or more in the US – to their presidents and six-figure salaries to many administrators.

I would submit to financially hard-pressed parents that they receive far more value from the impoverished adjuncts that actually teach their children than from the well-heeled presidents who nominally manage the schools their children attend. The $2,500 adjunct prepares lectures, demonstrations and discussions. She meets with students and corrects papers and exams. She may offer advice and counselling to students.

But some million-dollar presidents, when not attending meetings, leading administrative retreats, looking for better jobs or perfecting their strategic plans, actually do very little. One president found time to earn a commercial pilot’s licence and to become quite proficient at Mandarin Chinese. These are very impressive accomplishments, but also suggest that he had far too much spare time.

Generally speaking, a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens, and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed. Indeed, if the same space aliens also took all the well-paid deanlettes and deanlings, their absence would also have little effect upon the university. It would simply be assumed that they were all away on retreat. The disappearance of the contingent faculty, on the other hand, would have a real impact upon students’ lives.

No one would argue that tenure systems produce perfect results. Professors who do not merit tenure are sometimes promoted. Sometimes, promising professors receive tenure and fail to live up to the potential they seemed to manifest.

Nevertheless, without tenure there will be no academic freedom. And without academic freedom universities would be controlled by their administrators, and intellectual life would suffer.

This is, unfortunately, the direction in which Canadian and American academic life is moving. The faculty, as Stanley Aronowitz has noted, is experiencing a “long winter of retreat”.

* Benjamin Ginsberg is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and author of Fall of the Faculty, published by Oxford University Press. This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the May 2012 edition of Academic Matters under the title “Tenure and Academic Freedom: The beginning of the end”.
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