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The Case Against Academic Tenure


On politically-charged campuses across Canada, academic tenure no longer affords protection for intellectual freedom, its original purpose. It and faculty unions do afford protection for under-performing - even non-performing - professors who do little to expand their own or their students' knowledge. A solution is proposed.

An edited version of this essay was originally published in the Fraser Forum. Republished with the permission of the author.


Hymie Rubenstein

 Author Notes

Professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba

 Essay - 1/11/2001

Whenever governments try to make universities accountable for what they do and how well they do it, there is the same shrill outcry from the faculty union hall. "Appalling" and "completely punitive" was the reply from Deborah Flynn, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, to the Mike Harris governmentís plan to begin linking university and college funding to post-graduation job success.

The level of rhetoric hardly matches the level of funding: $16.5 million, or less than one percent, of the $1.7 billion in operating monies in the 2000 fiscal year budget. If anything, this is appallingly low given that few students, including those in the liberal arts, would bother going to university if they knew that their degrees would make no difference to their career prospects.

As with the response to the March 2000 announcement by the government of Ontario of a $1.4-billion rejuvenation of infrastructure earmarked exclusively for the applied sciences and the more recent decision to permit the establishment of private for-profit universities, the unstated reason behind the outcry is the implication that all forms of targeted funding and entrepreneurship have for that sacred cow of higher education, the institution of tenure.

This is because for targeted, performance-based funding and the profit motive to succeed, the inflexible lifelong sinecures enjoyed by over 7,000 Ontario professors would have to be either fundamentally redefined or replaced by output- and needs-based term contracts.

Tenure would have to be overhauled or gutted because it exacerbates the funding, performance, and accountability issues now facing all Canadian universities, because it entrenches unearned monetary and other privileges, because it ossifies the status quo, and because it invites indifference to the education of students.

I condemn tenure as an archaic institution in a new age society and economy knowing that those who support it, namely most professors and all faculty unions, argue that tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom, the right of academics to freely and openly address controversial and unpopular issues without fear of censure or reprisal.

Nearly 30 years at the University of Manitoba, Western Canadaís oldest university, has taught me that this definition of tenure is misleading because it ignores the fact that, in the real world of the citadel, tenure either discourages or is indifferent to either unfettered original research or uncompromising social criticism.

The unwillingness of most tenured professors to challenge, except in hushed tones, the heavy-handed implementation of repressive, albeit politically-correct, university anti-free speech codes suggests that moral cowardice, not breaches of academic freedom, is what needs to be protected against. If tenure were abolished and those of normally faint heart (i.e., most of the professoriate) chose to speak out on controversial issues, this could readily be accommodated with clear, ethically defensible, and mutually enforceable codes of academic freedom.

Neither are most tenured professors, especially those in the liberal arts where everlasting individual autonomy is most strongly championed, innovative cerebral gadflies intellectually or politically out-of-step with those around them. Rather, most spend their time and energy currying collegial and other favour by assiduously sympathizing with whatever paradigm happens to be the flavour of the week.

Surely we now know that systemic creativity and risk-taking are found in the private sector, not in government or in the public (i.e., government) university. Tenure actually stifles creativity by selecting for civil-service minded risk-adverse individuals attracted to academe by its job security and lack of accountability either to peers, students, superiors, or the tax-paying public.

Even if most tenured professors aspired to scholarly independence, few would be able to satisfy this ambition because most academics at most universities are intellectual lightweights. The top 10-20 of professors produce over 50 percent of the articles in the leading journals in their disciplines; early research output generally nosedives, sometimes to ground zero, after that cherished "appointment without term" is secured; over 50 percent of liberal arts academics publish only the equivalent of a single book and less than a dozen scholarly articles over an entire 30-40 year career; most of this "scholarship" goes unread or is of no lasting importance.

This is not an indictment of the scholarly life but reflects the simple fact that, even during non-brain drain times, great minds and great ideas are always in short supply. Since most professors are academic clones or drones, why should any but the brightest and best of them deserve the honour and protection of a lifetime appointment that has so many rights and so few responsibilities?

The gradual enshrinement of tenure in union contracts has also made it virtually impossible to remove poor performers. "Persistent neglect of duty, incompetence or gross misconduct," the grounds for dismissal in most contracts, are so ambiguously defined that they are nearly impossible to prove except in the most egregious of cases (most of which involve "gross misconduct" based on charges of sexual impropriety).

Since tenure is relatively easy to obtain at most Canadian universities (publish a few trivial and incomprehensible articles in a few arcane journals while ingratiating yourself to your colleagues and you are sure to get your iron rice bowl), this means that bad tenure decisions lock an institution into an academically destructive three-decade contract. This is made worse by the fact that turning a tenure candidate down is a virtual academic death sentence: if you get tenure, you are in for life; if you donít, you are fired. This makes compassion, not performance, the determining factor in many tenure decisions.

Two types of non-tenure employment contracts make tenure all the more problematic. The first is the "probationary appointment," a "tenure-stream" position of three or more years leading to tenure consideration. Since such appointments always end with a tenure hearing and since the rare negative decision nearly always leads to dismissal, and since this almost always leads to years of costly litigation, probationary appointments are nearly always free passes into sinecure-land. University administrators have reacted to the inflexibility this creates by limiting more and more new appointments to the second type of contract, the eight-month sessional appointment. Those who fill these positions, almost invariably bright, young academics eager for a career in higher education, have less job security than most Wal-Mart employees. If they hope to enter the tenure stream, they must be inspiring teachers and productive scholars. Many of these young savants have already outperformed many full professors in their sixties though they earn one-quarter of the latterís salary.

There is a ready solution to all these problems.

The exploitation of sessional lecturers and the excesses of tenure could both be addressed by replacing tenure with renewable multi-year performance-based contracts. (Expecting high performance from faculty might even lead to expecting the same from students.) Tenure could even be retained to grant ultimate academic autonomy to truly exceptional scholars, the intellectual elite, to dissuade them from taking positions at other institutions or in the private sector. As for the rest -- the mass of lackluster performers -- the future of higher learning and advanced research, the interests of students, and the needs of society would all best be served if they were emancipated from this pernicious institution.

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