By Peter McInnis
Tenure. For something that is a central aspiration for faculty seeking permanent appointments in academia few may fully understand the broader concept and how Canadian post-secondary institutions compare internationally. The connection between tenure and academic freedom is similarly underplayed yet these two concepts provided the foundation for the holistic “academic job” as we have come to understand it — encompassing the diversity of teaching, research, and robust intramural and extramural academic freedoms.
Too often the concept of tenure is reduced to a merely a guarantee of job protection. That oversimplification leads to critiques that such continuing appointments obstruct implementation of discredited performance-based metrics or related administration-driven initiatives. Some argue that tenure should be rescinded or, at least, be subject to ongoing post-tenure reviews. This perspective obscures the core value of tenure, which is to ensure workplace permanency and provide the necessary stability to perform our core professional duties of advancing and communicating knowledge.
Canadian institutions fare quite well when contrasted with international post-secondary employment where tenure is often unavailable or comparatively restricted. The United Kingdom lost tenure altogether in 1988 when it was replaced with fixed-term contracts, themselves subject to incessant metrics-driven demands of the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks. Similar limited term contractual employment may be found in a broad range of countries including Sweden, Finland, Italy, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. The lack of job stability is frequently identified as a leading factor in workplace stress and declining career satisfaction.
Not surprisingly, recent vulnerabilities of tenure and academic freedom have become embroiled in the broader "culture wars" in the United States. The precipitous decline of tenured positions began in the 1970s and 2022 data from the American Association of University Teachers indicates that an astonishing 80 per cent of undergraduate instruction is performed by precariously employed faculty. It gets worse. Just over 10 per cent of new appointments will be “tenure eligible” in this just-in-time delivery model whereby faculty are simply couriers of educational products. DoorDash or SkipTheDishes begats ForgoTheTenure?
It should come as no surprise that in this unstable working environment concomitant moves to sharply restrict or eliminate academic freedom has escalated in some states including Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Academics engaged with subjects involving critical race theory, gender, sexuality, environmental science are now especially vulnerable to swaying political currents. The quandary is how to engage in intramural and extramural academic freedom if one’s employment is subject to the animus of powerful opponents? Widespread use of social media has exacerbated this susceptibility and an errant Tweet may lead to mobbing and demands for workplace termination.
While not as extreme as in the U.S., the situation in Canada is concerning. Statistics Canada data for those classified as permanent academic workers indicates tenured appointments went from 17.1 per cent in 1991 to 39.9 per cent in 2021. Yet, the momentum against tenured positions is evident.
In 2018, two reports prepared by CAUT and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted that 54 per cent of academic appointments were limited term. Of those, the majority were short-term contracts of four to eight months, or less. While considering chronic underfunding of post-secondary education, shifting student demographics, and differing demands in subject disciplines, these surveys observe that precarity cannot be deemed a temporary aberration but an ensconced structural reality and a conscious administrative choice to opt for workplace insecurity.
Reductions in tenured appointments reveals weaknesses in the academic model of collegial contributions to peer-reviewed scholarship. Those willing to serve as adjudicators for funding agencies, joining editorial boards, reviewing submissions for journals, acting as assessors for external department reviews, as well as rank and tenure committees are less forthcoming in recent years. Fundamental service of this nature generally falls to tenured faculty and these numbers are diminishing.
So, is academic tenure destined to gradually disappear like sheets of Arctic ice sloughing into a warming ocean? Complacency is the enemy of collective action. Those with tenure or tenure-track appointments should be aware of the inherent inequities for the ever-growing ranks of contract academic staff. This not only entails ensuring fair treatment for CAS appointments, but also pushing for a clear conversion process for contractual faculty to tenure-stream permanency. Certification and inclusive collective agreements offer an avenue of legal protection. Faculty complement language may be negotiated along with related protections for contingent academics. It is in the best interests of everyone to resist the insidious bifurcation of academia.
Canada’s public universities and colleges are irreplicable contributors to the common good and vital to encouraging critically thinking independent citizens. Our assumptions of a healthy and responsive democracy are in no small measure premised on the skills and confidence we impart on students. More than ever our society needs the constructive intellectual contributions that tenure and academic freedom afford.