Barring an unexpected, last-minute breakthrough, a Manitoba union representing 1075 members went on strike this morning [November 9, 1998]. The strike does not enjoy large-scale support among its members nor will it appeal to public sympathies. But, in many ways, the union has already won. Such are labour negotiations between the University of Manitoba and the faculty association representing its professors and librarians.
While minor disputes over parking passes and spousal hiring are on the table, the source of the strike lies in the University Board of Governor's proposed mandatory retirement clause in Article 19.c.3 of the Collective Agreement. If the board has its way, any professor age 69 or older -- regardless of ability -- will be forced to retire. The proposal is not unpopular among the faculty, particularly among the younger academics.
In fact, scarcely three years ago, members of the faculty association executive openly flirted with the idea. But, over the last six months, the union's leadership has backed itself into a rigid bargaining position against mandatory retirement, making it look like the gang that can't shoot straight. Only about four in 10 members voted for the strike. But if victory for the faculty association in the 1998 contract battle is in doubt, the academics at Western Canada's oldest university can take heart for they have won the war. The position of the University's Board of Governors firmly establishes who controls the University -- and it isn't the board.
Mandatory retirement aims exclusively at saving money. Like most Canadian universities, the University of Manitoba must balance rising costs and frozen government funding. Under such circumstances, a proposal that generates $3 million in savings over two years is tempting. But in proposing such an arbitrary and visionless downsizing mechanism, the University's administration has formally conceded that it has no power to manage.
Downsizing, of course, often occurs in the private sector. Disappointed by performance, managers often choose to refocus priorities, eliminate redundancies, and cut less competent staff. With tenure, university managers have their hands tied and professors are immune from practically any accountability.
Professors David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J.L. Granatstein, authors of the best selling Petrified Campus, estimate that between 1984 and 1994, no more than 15 tenured professors lost their jobs -- an astoundingly low number given that more than 20,000 professors were tenured in 1994 alone. The authors conclude that "universities have far too many professors who do little but meet their classes, teach in a desultory way, sit on a committee or two, and do no research or writing."
Academics defend tenure as necessary for academic freedom. In theory, it allows scholars, particularly those in the liberal arts, to pursue controversial new ideas without fear of political interference. In practice, Canada's liberal arts establishment looks increasingly like a retirement home for 1960s dogmatists: In recent months, our campuses have seen economists waxing poetic about Cuban students' freedom to study Marxist-Leninism at Castro's universities without paying tuition, public policy experts churning out papers that deny the existence of waiting lists in the medicare system, and feminists drafting eloquent essays that equate marriage with rape and fatherhood with molestation.
Carlton Professor Peter Emberley, himself an advocate of tenure, writes in Zero Tolerance: "Some faculty fail to see that current versions of 'academic freedom' are merely license for misanthropy, stereotyping, innuendo, prurience and vicious griping about students, women, and those who have chosen alternative lifestyles." Some scholars, of course, do develop controversial new ideas. But it's hard to see what political interference would plague a computer scientist with a new theory of data sorting or a microbiologist's work on mastoiditis.
If tenure isn't enough, most university academics are unionized, with faculty associations protecting academic staff without concern for teaching and research quality and aggressively grieving disciplinary action against their membership. At the University of Manitoba, the Faculty Association grieved the dismissal of a professor who had raped his step-daughter and violated his parole. (After a public backlash, the professor withdrew the legal action.) "It's just this sort of behavior," notes a former board member, "that makes me suspect that their policy is: Don't judge the lowest common denominator lest, one day, we be judged."
Between tenure and unionization, no management of any university can manage. Notes Sir Graham Day, chancellor of Dalhousie University, faculty associations have succeeded in "blurring, among other aspects, academic freedom, rank, tenure, job security, pay and benefits with the management of the university." Several Memorial University senior administrators recently concurred, lamenting that "those among us who are honest with themselves will admit that universities are ungovernable."
In this environment, cost-conscience administrators are only left with options like early retirement packages and mandatory retirement. With 80% of the typical university budget spent on faculty salaries and almost no direct way of firing redundant and incompetent staff, only arbitrary action can be taken. All the while taxpayers -- who pour more than $6 billion a year into Canada's universities -- are on the hook. Per student, Canadians spend $11,300 a year, far more than Germany ($8,380), France ($6,010), Japan ($8,880), and the U.K. ($7,600), helping to give us the highest education spending, as percentage of GDP, of the 28 OECD nations.