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Commentary / Unionization, academic freedom, & sessional contract faculty

Commentary / Unionization, academic freedom, & sessional contract faculty

[ / smolaw11]

By Stephanie Ross, Larry Savage, & James Watson

There is little doubt that the casual nature of sessional contract faculty positions works to undermine academic freedom. This was one major takeaway from our recent research project exploring the relationship between unionization and academic freedom for sessional contract faculty.

The project compared university policies and contract provisions in Ontario with a view to determining whether unionized sessional faculty have stronger academic freedom protections than their non-union counterparts. The project went further to explore whether particular kinds of bargaining unit structures were more conducive to achieving stronger academic freedom provisions for sessional faculty.


Unionization plays a key role in the promotion and defence of academic freedom in Canada. While the scope of academic freedom is contested, as evidenced by interpretive differences between CAUT and Universities Canada, in practice, the parameters of such debates are typically constrained by specific collective agreement provisions, where such union contracts exist.

Our analysis was based on a review of collective agreement provisions and university policies concerning academic freedom for sessional faculty across 27 Ontario universities. To determine whether there were quantifiable patterns based on union status and bargaining unit structure, we developed an Academic Freedom Provision Index (AFPI) to measure and rank the relative strength of academic freedom provisions at each university. This was accomplished by coding policy or contract language based on a standardized set of measurements and scoring criteria. The evaluation criteria for the AFPI was based on the following four dimensions of academic freedom: (a) Freedom to teach; (b) Freedom to research; (c) Extramural freedom; (d) Intramural freedom.

Freedom to teach was broadly assessed based on the robustness of provisions that protect sessional faculty’s ability to determine pedagogical methods, course content, and design. Freedom to research was assessed based on the existence of provisions that guaranteed the right to choose research topics, publish research, and discuss research results without limitation, fear of reprisal, or institutional censorship. Provisions for extramural freedoms were assessed based on several factors, including language that permits sessionals to exercise their rights as citizens without sanction by administrators and intramural freedom was measured based on the existence of explicit provisions that secure a right to comment, without censorship or reprisal, on any aspect of the university.

For each of these dimensions, the strength of the provision and the subsequent score was based on the robustness and expansiveness of the explicit language contained in the policy or collective agreement. Relatedly, caveats designed to significantly limit the exercise of academic freedom were used as grounds for a scoring deduction.

In cases where universities had academic freedom policies embedded in both policies and collective agreements, we used the collective agreement provisions for the purposes of assessment because in each case the agreements superseded the university’s general policy statements.

Research Findings

The data revealed a clear pattern that suggests a strong relationship exists between union status, bargaining unit status, and the strength of academic freedom protections for sessional faculty.

The aggregate data pointed to two important findings. First, unionized sessional faculty have much stronger academic freedom provisions than their non-union counterparts; and second, unionized sessional faculty represented by faculty associations have more robust academic freedom protections than their counterparts represented by other kinds of public sector unions.

Unionized sessional faculty represented by faculty associations appear to benefit from an academic freedom spillover effect. Academic freedom, especially its provisions related to research and extramural/intramural freedoms, are often most closely associated with the tenure or tenure-track faculty positions that make up the majority of faculty associations’ membership. While faculty association collective agreements do sometimes contain language that differentiates between academic freedom rights for sessional and permanent faculty, this is the exception rather than the rule. In general, the status and importance accorded to academic freedom for tenured and tenure-track faculty benefits their sessional counterparts in the same union.

For sessionals represented by other kinds of public sector unions, only two out of twelve such collective agreements contained explicit provisions that covered all four dimensions of academic freedom. The provisions most often absent were those for extramural freedoms and research-based freedoms.


While the data clearly demonstrates that unionized sessional faculty have better academic freedom provisions than their non-union counterparts and that unionized sessionals in faculty associations tend to have better academic freedom provisions than their unionized counterparts in other public sector unions, these findings really only tell half the story. What is not immediately clear from a review of academic freedom provisions is that the actual exercise of academic freedom for sessional faculty (both union and non-union) is undermined by the non-permanent status of these positions. While most unionized sessionals undoubtedly have greater academic freedom protections than their non-union counterparts, a lack of job security and the structural power imbalances between contract faculty and tenured faculty, let alone Deans and other senior administrators, mean that sessionals, in general, are less willing to push the limits of academic freedom for fear of not having their contracts renewed. That is why, in conjunction with demands for strong academic freedom protections, unions representing sessionals have also sought better job security language through the negotiation of seniority provisions, the right of first refusal, strong grievance procedures, and continuing appointments.

These associated rights and protections are important because complaints from students and colleagues about the teaching, research, and the conduct of sessional faculty can have potentially devastating consequences for career progression. While these sources of vulnerability affect all academics, they do so on a continuum, with sessionals situated at its most vulnerable end.

It should also be noted that while university administrators ultimately make decisions about hiring and firing sessionals, tenured faculty serving as department heads are typically in the position of making recommendations to that effect. In other words, sessionals are vulnerable on at least three fronts, having to worry about offending not only the administration, but also their students and tenured colleagues.

Moreover, while formal grievances may be pursued on behalf of sessionals who argue they were not renewed or reappointed as a result of their exercise of academic freedom, conclusive proof is hard to come by and may be complicated by the fact that in many cases the union’s membership is comprised of faculty members who played a role in recommending non-renewal.


Unionization clearly plays an important role in bolstering formal academic freedom protections for sessional faculty. Our analysis of the data reveals that, on average, unionized sessionals who are part of faculty association bargaining units have stronger academic freedom contract provisions than their unionized counterparts in separate unions. Moreover, the data reveals that unionized sessionals, regardless of bargaining unit structure, have much stronger academic freedom contract protections than their non-union counterparts who are subject to non-legally binding university policies that may be altered unilaterally at any time by boards or senior administrators.

However, rights on paper do not always translate into rights in practice. The major takeaway from our analysis is that while union status and bargaining unit structure have an impact on the strength and scope of academic freedom provisions, it is incredibly difficult for sessionals, in general, to meaningfully exercise their right to academic freedom without fear of reprisal. This is especially true given the power imbalances and vulnerabilities sessionals are most prone to experience, thus underscoring the need for greater sessional job security provisions to give real meaning to academic freedom protections.

Stephanie Ross is an associate professor and Director of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.

Larry Savage is a professor of Labour Studies at Brock University.

James Watson is a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Sociology at McMaster University.

This article draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The full research findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.


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