What's the point of tenure for university professors?
In the September 4 issue of Forbes Magazine, Thomas Sowell, an economist and academic heavyweight in the United States, maintains that tenure has become little more than a pretence for safeguarding the jobs of lazy and incompetent academics. Were he living in Canada, he might consider academic tenure as a still vital protection against the freedom-stifling proclivities of human rights commissions.
Nonetheless, Sowell does have a point: tenure is wide open to abuse. "Combined with so-called 'faculty self-governance,'" he notes, "tenure produces the deadly combination of decision-making power without accountability for the consequences. In no other institution anywhere are large numbers of people able to make decisions without being subject to being fired (or even demoted) for being wrong."
In addition, few other highly paid professionals are able to get away with as little work as professors. Sowell describes professorial teaching 'loads' as, "a joke on most campuses. At elite institutions, they are hilarious - except perhaps to those who pay the inflated costs that result."
Sowell recalls that as a full-time faculty member variously at Cornell University, Amherst College and the University of California at Los Angeles, he never spent as much as seven and a half hours a week in the classroom. What would he make of academic life at Canadian universities? On this side of the border, tenured professors typically spend no more than six, 50-minute periods a week in the classroom.
That's just 300 minutes a week, a fraction of the 1,250 minutes of weekly instructional time that Ontario Education Minister Dave Johnson expects of high school teachers. While teachers get plenty of holiday time to rest up from their labours, so do university faculty. A professor rarely lectures during more than 26 weeks each year.
Granted, professors have duties in addition to lecturing. They have to mark papers, some supervise graduate students and most take on some administrative duties.
Sowell observes that another rationale for the "fleeting appearances in class" by professors is the obligation to publish or perish. "No doubt," he says, "such research is very important in medicine, engineering, science and some other fields."
However, adds Sowell, in many other academic fields, "especially in education and various ethnic and feminist 'studies,' drivel is the norm."
Martin Loney agrees. In his book, The Pursuit of Division, he points out that the Department of Women's Studies and Feminist Research at the University of Western Ontario recently conferred its Women's Studies Essay Award on an essay containing the following passage: "i didn't want to care how jennifer felt but because i am sensitive to how one feels silenced / i did care * shit * if she hadn't come over here with me this wouldn't even be a dilemma."
Loney comments: "The prize-winning essay not only dispenses with grammatical convention; It also shuns such androgynous requirements as scholarly reference."
With the faculty in the Department of Women's Studies handing out an award for such drivel, it's hardly surprising that students in the Department do exceptionally well. Last year, no fewer than 90.2 per cent of those in the general program received an A or B; only 4.9 per cent failed.
In comparison, just 39.2 per cent of general students in the Department of Economics got an A or B; and 12.1 per cent failed. How can self-respecting faculty condone such gross discrepancies in the rigour of student evaluations?
Outsiders who dare to criticize worthless academic departments and underperforming professors in a university will be accused of oversimplifying and distorting the issues. "These," observes Sowell, "are fashionable ways of seeming to argue without having to advance a single fact or a single step of logic."
It's not unusual for full professors at a Canadian university to earn more than $100,000 a year. Many, if not most, of these academics are outstanding performers who merit every last cent of their handsome incomes. But what about all those who contribute little more than 130 hours a year of dreary, repetitive and intellectually arid lectures?
Having shaken up the province's elementary and secondary schools, [Ontario Education Minister David] Johnson should turn his reforming sites on the universities. Sowell is surely right to warn that, "The likelihood that the academic world will reform itself from within is about the same as the likelihood that the Mafia will decide to go straight."