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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2014

Defending the academic job

By Wayne Peters
Our public universities and colleges are indispensable to the greater societal good. They advance our collective social, cultural, political and economic interests through the pursuit of knowledge. They promote a well-educated and independent-thinking citizenry which, in turn, contributes to the formation and preservation of democratic civil societies. CAUT firmly maintains that this vision of public post-secondary education is well worth defending.

Central to this vision is the academic job, which encompasses the creation, transmission and application of knowledge through critical enquiry, teaching and research. These primary functions always involve a wider range of activities — public lectures, conference communications, publications, professional practice, the building of library collections, artistic production and performance to name a few — that together define the nature of academic work.

These days, though, the academic job is under full-scale attack. It matters not if it is as a target or as a casualty. Neoliberal ideology, overbearing and over-reaching govern­ments, austerity politics, corporatization and fiscal bottom lines are rapidly undermining the academic job and, in the process, our institutions’ collective ability to fulfill the public mission.

In response to years of deep cuts to public funding for post-secondary education, our university and college leaders are shamefully not calling for a renewed public funding framework, but instead opening up our institutional doors to collaborations with the private and corporate sectors in pursuit of money to offset the public shortfall. As concluded in CAUT’s recent report “Open for Business: On What Terms?” our institutions are forfeiting their integrity and undercutting core academic principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom through such arrangements. In the process, the academic job is compromised and we risk our institutions serving private rather than public interests.

Furthermore, traditional collegial governance on our campuses has largely been supplanted by more corporate-oriented, business models of operation exhibiting more centralized, top-down decision-making. Our administrations, which existed in the past largely to support the academic mission, have since morphed into senior management groups that now see academic and non-academic staff alike, along with buildings and other infrastructure, as resources to be managed and students as customers to be satisfied.

In this new reality, our “managers” are driven more by fiscal bottom lines than by the quality of academic programming. Coupled with external pressures to cut costs, to measure individual performance and to prioritize academic programming, it comes as no surprise then that they should want greater flexibility and control over how our institutions are operated and how resources — especially human resources — are managed. And, of course, a restricted role and diminished voice for academic staff in institutional governance is a precondition for this.

I would argue, however, that the most significant threat to the academic job at this time is the unchecked casualization of our academic staff ranks. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of contract academic staff members working in extremely precarious and poorly-paid positions. While our employers occasionally bemoan the need to employ casualized staff, the reality is that — in their bottom-line world — they eagerly exploit this cheap and vulnerable labour. They enjoy, as well, the increased management control and flexibility over the workplace and the workforce that come their way by default with greater worker insecurity.

According to the American Association of University Professors’ recently released report, “The Employment Status of Instructional Staff Members in Higher Education, Fall 2011,” the proportion of contingent academic staff employed in the US has risen from about 55 per cent in 1975 to just over 75 per cent in 2011. Over this time, the growth rate in the use of contingent staff was about 10 times that of tenured and tenure-track staff, and accounted for 92 per cent of the total growth over the same period. We have not been able to compile accurate numbers in Canada due to the unavailability of data. However, there is no reason to believe the picture would be any different from that south of the border.

In order to realize their societal obligations, universities and colleges must champion institutional autonomy and acade­mic freedom as their foundational tenets. They must be free from external influences to set their aca­demic directions through collegial governance. Academic staff must be free to determine the course of their teaching, research and scholarship, as well as to criticize the institution should they so choose. Additionally, the free and open exchange of ideas and discoveries must be protected at all costs.

Academic work embodies these essential conditions. Without them in place, our institutions and their academic staff cannot wholly discharge their societal obligations. An attack on any of these conditions is an attack on the academic job, and vice versa. In the face of the many threats to post-secondary education, then, at stake for our universities and colleges is nothing less than their integrity, without which there can be no public trust.

I would argue then that it is CAUT’s unequivocal duty as a national federation of academic staff associations to aggressively defend and proudly promote the academic job. The reason is simple; it is in the public interest. Without this effort, our institutions will become less vital and relevant to society and will fail in their public mission to advance the societal good.

The mobilization necessary to defend our vision of the academic job and post-secondary education will require a proactive education of our members and, more important, the general public about the role and value of post-secondary education as an indispensable component of society at large. After all, post-secondary education is a public policy issue in this country — not an ivory tower issue — and so its protection is in the public interest. CAUT believes in this vision for post-secondary education and will continue to provide the leadership and support necessary to ensure it is realized.