A lot of nonsense is paraded as truth in arguments favouring getting rid of tenure. They are of the sort that show up in such movies as Educating Rita and center on the proposition that tenure is a guarantee of a job for life. I, like most of us in the academy, have little patience for such myth-making.

On the opposite side of the debate, however, most people who argue in favour of tenure assert that tenure and academic freedom are inextricably linked—and that’s another view I don’t happen to share. While I agree that tenure is presently the vehicle that allows the practice of academic freedom, I believe that such practice nonetheless depends on job security, not tenure, and that, therefore, job security can be provided by something other than tenure—and should be.

Academic freedom is special, prized, and to be defended at all costs. Tenure is not.

Academic freedom is already recognized and protected in a number of ways. Collective agreements across the country contain articles that enshrine the absolute necessity of recognizing and maintaining academic freedom as essential to teaching, research, and scholarship. Canada was a sponsor of, and is signatory to, the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, which states:

The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.

Academics lead highly scrutinized professional lives. Every time they walk into a classroom, their students evaluate them (and, if the academic is teaching on TV, for example, non-registered students also evaluate the academic). Every time an academic sends a manuscript out for publication, editors review the submission. Every time an academic presents or publishes, colleagues in the discipline, at a minimum, review the work (and publish their reviews). Indexes listing peer citations of an academic’s published work are becoming more important. Every research grant or other grant application is reviewed by a peer or group of peers before a decision is made. Every time a research proposal is subjected to ethics scrutiny, a review is conducted. In fact, academic work is highly visible, even extending to academics’ offering expert testimony or expert opinion in print, on TV, via the web, etc. Pay raises are, in part, based on a review of an academic’s performance. Academics are expected to compete for awards that recognize and celebrate academic achievements, and so awards are also venues for intense scrutiny.

Along with this constant and unrelenting review, an academic can expect to “enjoy” a minimum of 4-5 years on a probationary appointment before being granted tenure. The tenure process is complex, consisting of several additional levels of scrutiny by the tenure seeker’s immediate colleagues and, in some cases, referees from elsewhere (and, possibly, academic management) to ensure that the reviews described above (teaching evaluations, publications, scholarship reviews, awards, citation indexes, etc.) meet the standards deemed sufficient to join the club.

This is where I part company with the majority of those who defend tenure. Having agreed that the exercise of academic freedom is dependent upon having job security (who would conduct controversial research if their job was at stake?), I advocate that academics should enjoy the same job security as other workers and achieve it in a similar fashion and in a similar time frame. Job security should be awarded, as it is for other groups, following six months of satisfactory performance on a probationary appointment. Moving to a simpler and faster system would decrease the workload of the many colleagues (and it is many) who now spend considerable time weighing the pros and cons of awarding a junior colleague tenure. Hours and hours of productive time could be freed up. Enormous amounts of stress and anxiety over lengthy probationary periods would be wiped out, allowing academics to get on with the real tasks of passing knowledge along to a new generation and increasing humankind’s knowledge base.

Academic freedom is special, prized, and to be defended at all costs. Tenure is not.

Academics would still be liable to dismissal for just cause and could be laid off for reasons of financial stringency or program redundancy, just as they currently are under the tenure system. Those job security contingencies would not change.

Employers would have to manage differently, of course, as they would not have the luxury of deferring for years the decision whether or not to give a junior academic some semblance of job security via tenure.

The value-laden and incorrect notion of tenure being a job for life would be completely erased, and academics would no longer have to deflect demands that tenure be removed because it provides job security for life. That untruth tenured academics are saddled with would become a thing of the past, if the academy adopted a standard similar to other workers of attaining job security.

I don’t expect that my minority opinion will be embraced by anyone anytime soon because I’ve argued it before, with no success whatsoever. Management at my university was not interested, despite a former chair of Carleton’s board of governors written declaration to the government of Ontario that everything would be fine at the university if tenure were removed (and if the union disappeared). The Broadhurst Commission, set up by the Ontario government to investigate university financial accountability, also raised the special nature of tenure and how it should be abolished. During its visit to our campus, when I told the commissioners I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to replace tenure with a straightforward job security system similar to other workers on campus and then asked them to help me convince the employer to agree, they visibly paled at the notion and quickly moved on to their real mandate.

So tenure will likely remain unchanged. And academics will continue to defend it when challenged by critics who believe in the myth of “a job for life”. And I am resigned to that fact. And I am also resigned to the fact that when such critics are provided with the alternative job security method suggested, they will usually start believing that tenure is not such a bad system after all. AM

Patricia A. Finn, LL.M., now retired, had thirty-three years’ experience with the Carleton University Academic Staff Association (CUASA), including many years as its Executive Director. The opinions in this article are her own and are not shared by CUASA.