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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2001

Slow Death of Tenure Promises Quick Burial for Academic Freedom

Tom Booth
We are all aware of the pronounced demographic and academic work transformations in our institutions. Our awareness extends to the knowledge that over the past decade, university administrators have increasingly chosen to use casual labor for long term staffing requirements.

Confluence of transformations and current administrative strategy present tenured and tenure track faculty members a stark choice. Either we watch a slow and sure degradation of our profession into a deconstructed, casualized, non-tenured state so as to suffer the situation endured by limited contract colleagues or we help win for them salary, working conditions and other rights comparable to our own. By undertaking the fight for increased salary, working conditions and rights we protect academic freedom, promote viable unfettered research and scholarship, foster quality teaching and curriculum development and strengthen collective bargaining for the academic profession.

In great measure, creativity on university campuses emanates from open, critical exchanges of ideas in vibrant collegial communication. This sharing and critical appraisal of information operates within the ages old values, tenets and responsibilities of academic freedom for all academic staff. Tenured and tenure stream faculty members possess all the rights, privileges and responsibilities inherent in academic freedom.

By contrast, contract academic staff can be dismissed at the end of their term without administrative reason, due process or rights to appeal. This has a definite chilling effect on expression of controversial ideas, adoption of innovative or unique teaching approaches, and critical expression on administrative practices and policies. Tenured faculty members are not subject to such chill. Tenure is the basis of academic freedom in the university and fosters a climate of indirect protection for everyone else in our institutions. With the growth of untenured faculty at our universities, this climate is compromised and weakened. Such weakening can erode activity leading to development of the basic ideas which lead to seminally creative output.

Opponents of tenure have been demanding its elimination. In light of current administrative strategies, wherein contract academic staff members are increasing in proportion to tenured faculty members, tenure's opponents will not have to directly attack it in order to effect its demise.

It is disturbing to note that only 41 per cent of faculty members in universities in the U.S. are tenured or tenure stream. The majority of those will be retiring in the next 10 years and unless the current trend to replace tenured academic staff with non-tenure track appointments is reversed, the next decade will likely see tenured faculty representing only 20 per cent of American university teaching and research staff. The proportion will be so small that academic freedom will be surely jeopardized, if not driven near to extinction.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a similar trend is occurring in Canadian universities. Anything short of our administrations becoming committed to replace tenure track positions in similar template and number as secure jobs, will limit institutional comprehensiveness and severely diminish academic freedom. Diminished academic freedom translates to compromised quality and integrity of our universities.

As a consequence of heavy teaching loads, contract academic staff members are subject to professional marginalization and pressures on time, evolution of course content, and scholarly activity. Without academic freedom it becomes difficult to deal with controversial or even philosophical topics. Holding high standards for course content and student performance is also compromised. Contract academic staff are also denied the opportunity and support to carry research programs or even to participate in research. Teaching, inexorably tied to research, defines the essence of university scholarship. Breaking this link threatens the foundation of what we do and leaves us open to de-professionalization.

Finally, contract academic staff members are given little or no time and incentive to understand and invest in the longer term goals of programs or the institution. What will our universities be like if the current trend to casualize teaching and, by definition, research is not reversed?

An increasing pool of poorly paid contract academic staff, with decidedly reduced institutional commitment and provided fewer resources supporting scholarship and independent inquiry, the collective bargaining strength of continuing faculty. Unless we want to be witness to the casualization, unbundling, and implosion of our profession, the best path forward is to fight to include all academic staff in our faculty associations and to ensure that all have decent pay and working conditions, and have the rights, privileges and responsibilities inherent in academic freedom.