Tenure as we know it today is a relatively recently phenomenon, dating from the 1960s. Since then, it periodically has come under critical scrutiny, if not attack, from inside and outside the academy.

Highly controversial research, perceptions of professorial indolence, and the real or assumed inflexibilities of the academic labour market are but some of triggers that prompt calls for tenure’s demise.

Is tenure outdated, even superfluous? If so, what are the alternatives and how viable are they? What can ensure academic freedom if not tenure? Or, contrarily, does tenure foster conformity, undermining academic freedom rather than enhancing it? What about the fairness of the tenure process, especially for women and non-traditional faculty?

These are the questions and concerns addressed in this “Debating Tenure” issue of Academic Matters. “Debate”, however, in some ways is a misnomer. The articles supporting tenure—such as those by Michiel Horn and Sandra Acker—cite both its shortcomings and accomplishments. The contributions of Mark Kingwell, Michael Bliss, and Pat Finn offer reasons for eliminating tenure, but their critiques are not simplistic attacks

Discussing tenure can be very emotive for supporters and critics alike. Yet, a fair-minded debate on tenure can be healthy, if uncomfortable, as it challenges misconceptions and increases understanding about where tenure is headed.

In many ways, though, the tenure debate is being overtaken by other developments. It was the large-scale shortage of qualified faculty in the 1960s that led universities to formalize the tenure process and the grounds for dismissal. Today the academic labour market and university employment policies are again having an impact on tenure.

The pressing issue now is that the proportion of tenured faculty in the academic workforce is becoming increasingly insignificant as universities hire contract staff to meet their needs. The U.S. situation is sobering. The American Federation of Teachers’ recent analysis of academic hiring patterns between 1997 and 2007 found that while the number of faculty positions grew in that 10-year period, nearly two-thirds of that increase was in “contingent” hiring, off the tenure track. At public fouryear universities and colleges, the proportion of tenure-track and tenured faculty fell, from 51 per cent to less than 40 per cent of faculty. The increase in contract positions, and the decline in tenure-track hiring, took place across all higher education sectors.

What about Canada?

Comprehensive data has not been collected on contract faculty in Canada. But it appears that although, due to higher rates of faculty collective bargaining, this country has maintained a higher proportion of tenured faculty compared to the U.S., Canadian universities are also hiring increasing numbers of contract faculty.

Questions about tenure and generational equity are thus being raised. And if tenured faculty become an ever-smaller proportion of academic staff, what are the implications for tenure—and the benefits it brings?

Contract academic staff don’t have the job security of tenured faculty. This is a critical concern. In their research study report, James Antony and Ruby Hayden observe that tenure, and the job security it affords, has a positive impact on faculty productivity. They find that in terms of research, teaching, and service, tenured faculty have higher levels of productivity than their non-tenured, or even tenure-track, counterparts. No surprise: without job security, long-term research, developing teaching expertise, or participating in collegial service to the community is difficult.

The answer to the growing insecurity of faculty employment is, therefore, not to make insecurity universal, through the elimination of tenure, but to extend security. While offering short-term “flexibility” to university employers, a labour force based on contract staff has many drawbacks for faculty, students, and the university itself. As Horn concludes, “imperfect as it is… tenure in its present form serves the long-term interests of universities and society better than any alternative that has been proposed.”

Were tenure to be eliminated, one can imagine it would have to be reinvented in some form. But that is little comfort to the growing numbers of contract academics with no prospect of security—or to the declining ranks of tenured faculty

Mark Rosenfeld is Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters and Associate Executive Director of OCUFA.