Academic tenure as we have known has become largely irrelevant but is so unpopular that it does serious harm to the professoriate and to our universities. Tenure has no future. We who care about academic life ought to welcome its death.
The irrelevance of tenure strikes me as I reflect on having been a full-time faculty member at the University of Toronto between 1968 and 2006. Tenure, which I had for about 32 of these 38 years, never affected me one way or another. I probably would have had exactly the same career had it never existed. Possibly I would have been better paid without it, possibly I would have played on academic teams less burdened with low-performers and on fields more enthusiastically funded by the community.
I always exercised my academic freedom to something close to a maximum. In the spring of 1974, during a free speech crisis on our campus, I was quoted on the front page of the Toronto Star as suggesting that our president, John Evans, should consider resigning. On many other occasions my remarks in newspaper articles and on radio and television offended people, ranging from very high-placed politicians through war veterans, aboriginals, and locally-proud residents of every region of Canada. Suggestions that I was unsuitable for my job and should be dismissed were made directly to presidents of our university, deans, and department chairs.
Having tenure did not cause me to speak more freely, work less, be a less conscientious teacher, or be more adventuresome in research than I would have been anyway. As a research scholar, I followed my interests and curiosity into completely different realms of history than those I had been hired to teach. One of my unusual projects, researching the discovery of insulin, involved one of the most controversial events in the history of the University of Toronto and led to suggestions from locally-important scientists that my project be stopped and my conclusions suppressed. The last major book I published was set completely in the United States and bears no relationship to anything anyone would have predicted on the basis of my graduate training and early books. It was a good ride, during which I often felt extremely privileged. Today, tenure’s influence is mostly symbolic, writes Michael Bliss, but in the worst kind of way.
Not once during this career did I ever have to face anything remotely like attempts to rein in my academic freedom. Not once did it occur to me that the protections my tenure gave me were needed, would be relevant to any of the controversies I was involved with, or should in any way be invoked. I don’t remember whether or not I had yet been given tenure when I criticized President Evans in 1974. Ironically, the only time tenure came into play was an occasion when a later president of the University of Toronto, Rob Prichard, publicly berated me, during a receiving line at an event at his home, for having published an attack on the institution. He heatedly told me that he wished I had not written the offending article; I told him he ought to be bolder in reforming tenure.
The precondition of having a career rich in academic freedom was my good fortune in being at the University of Toronto, where a culture encouraging and celebrating academic freedom had become ingrained and instinctive. No one in our administration during my time would have considered trying to silence, let alone disciplining or dismissing me for controversial expressions of my views. I was conscious enough of my responsibility as a university professor to try (perhaps not always successfully) to express myself temperately and responsibly. There were, and are, lines that no professor, tenured or not, can cross—lines of libel, slander, defamation, and the parameters defined by our hate legislation and our human rights codes. If I had crossed these, I would not only have been liable before civil bodies, but the university would have had cause to dismiss me despite my tenure.
(It happened that I was an adjudicator of an important attempt by a university to do this to a tenured professor who was alleged to have made outrageously offensive comments about a certain group of his students. The university lost its case but only because it had not followed elementary fair procedure. Unfortunately, details of this case are still subject to confidentiality provisions of that time).
The university also knew it was satisfied with my teaching and research performance because, by the 1980s, it had put in place accountability mechanisms, including annual reports on both our scholarly and our outside activities. Our system of evaluations to assess teaching had been formalized much earlier. My merit, or lack of it, was reviewed every year at salary time. Had there been serious problems, I would have been denied raises and promotions; really serious problems and I could have been dismissed for cause. Given these values and this framework, my tenure status hardly mattered.
This is not unusual or surprising. Most of my colleagues, at Toronto and most other universities, had similar careers with a similar balance of generous freedoms tempered by increasingly formalized accountability procedures (I have not had the space to factor in our increased accountability to granting agencies). As defenders of tenure are the first to point out, most professors with tenure, being hard-working and conscientious professional men and women, carry out their academic duties diligently and productively. They do not need any of the special privileges tenure ostensibly confers, and their tenured status does not reduce their performance or sense of responsibility. By the same token, most university administrators are fierce defenders of academic freedom and have no interest whatever in trying to stifle dissenting opinions or adventurous or controversial research.
Having tenure did not cause me to speak more freely, work less, be a less conscientious teacher, or be more adventuresome in research than I would have been anyway.
Where tenure does come into play, however, is on the margins. There will always be a certain percentage of faculty appointments that go wrong and should be revoked. Currently the process of tenuring catches some of these mistakes. But not all. A few bad apples slip through the screen or become spoiled later. A few of these then cling fiercely to their jobs, no matter how many messages get sent from above. In some of these cases it’s very hard for administrations to screw up the courage and expense to finesse their way through the various extra protections tenure affords. And so a very few unproductive and non-performing faculty members become the girdle of “fat” encircling most academic institutions ( I will not call them our love handles). There can also be situations where reasonably productive faculty members in disciplines that no longer attract students, interest, or outside funding, are seen as a burden of extra academic poundage and/ or where administrators determine to reshape their institutions and sometimes settle old scores.
I stress the point that abuses of tenure, even problems of redundancy, are not at all the norm in institutions of higher education. What is normal, however, what absolutely must not be denied, is the intense unpopularity of the word and concept “tenure” outside the universities. In a long career, moving constantly between academia and other intellectual and social spheres, I do not remember ever hearing non-faculty members express admiration for or even approval of the concept of tenure. Whether or not tenure is abused, the very word connotes privilege and featherbedding. When applied to highly-educated and relatively well-paid professionals, it becomes galling to everyone who is not, a red flag symbol of perks, power, and privilege. Insofar as those who resent tenure hold financial power over the universities—not only politicians, but also potential philanthropists—they retaliate by being less generous. Give a person iron-clad job security, the reasoning goes, and you can pay less.
Note the course of history here. When academic tenure was taking on its modern form at North American universities, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was still not uncommon for private-sector workers, both blue- and white-collar to have remarkable job security, often spending their whole working lives with one employer. In 1978 the then-head of the Southam newspaper chain in Canada, one of our university’s governors, told me that they had just given all their employees a guarantee of job security, not unlike tenure.
How long ago that seems! Today’s media workers, like virtually everyone else in the private sector, burn with insecurity, and they burn with resentment at the very mention of the idea of academic tenure. Even inside the university, untenured contract workers seem increasingly estranged from the privileged few, who are seen to have crossed a great divide.
Their estrangement is surely just. The claim that tenure is a necessary precondition of academic freedom is inherently and monstrously unjust to non-tenured academics. These are the scholars, often more adventurous and outspoken than the old and established, who most need academic freedom. To them the institution of tenure is as though society offered a guaranteed annual income to everyone but the poor. Words like “hypocrisy” and “dishonesty” come to mind.
As an active and hard-working professor I resented the notion that my formal job security, which I didn’t need, probably reduced my remuneration. I resented the very small handful of my colleagues who were non-productive, tenured drones, a burden the rest of us had to carry. I hoped they could be fired. Similarly, I felt our university was handicapped in its mission by some of our under-performing or obese departments and divisions and saw no reason why they should be carried by the rest of us. It seemed to me that any organization aiming for continuing excellence has to have the flexibility to deal with redundancy, equitably but decisively. If personally I had been told that my teaching field was no longer needed I would have either tried to re-tool or would have looked for another job.
As a matter of elementary public relations and common sense the professoriate ought to let tenure fade into the mists and controversies of history. In our time, the institution’s main influence is mostly symbolic, but in the worst kind of way. The more review procedures we have put into place to counter the perceived abuses of tenure, the less we need the concept itself. Inside and outside the university there are now a myriad of protections against discriminatory dismissals, as well as provisions for severance in times of financial stringency. Indeed, faculty associations, sometimes as certified unions, are working at many universities to establish employment protection standards through collective bargaining, which also serve to make tenure superfluous. We will probably see more of this, driven by pressure from the increasing percentage of non-tenured academic employees.
Only the Arthur Scargills of this world cling blindly to the employment policies and guarantees of the past. Ideologically pure and unsullied, they remain as society tosses them into the dustbin of history. Under massive pressure from governments and the general public, disdained by university administrations desperate for flexibility, subtly undermined by the growth of collective bargaining, academic tenure is a dying institution.
We should let in rest in peace.
Any day now tenure’s demise will be furthered when a Canadian provincial government or a major university, perhaps following events in the United States, bites the bullet and announces that it will no longer make appointments that carry what the community sees as the stigma of tenure. There will be extremely widespread public approval for the move, cries of anguish only from a few Scargills, and, one hopes, a sophisticated response from faculty associations interested in maximizing the well-being of our universities and we who have staffed them.
Of course the next problem might become what some of us call the York syndrome, a systemic failure of university labour relations that manages to harm virtually everyone. I almost moved to York University in the late 1980s and came to be very glad that I did not. I think I would have been very unhappy in that troubled institution. But those are considerations for another occasion.
My ideal university, which the University of Toronto has still to become, would have been something like an athletic organization aiming at year after year of maximum high performance. In the 21st century I cannot imagine sports teams, or any other high-achieving organizations, giving tenure to their employees. Like it or not, we will soon have universities that seriously aspire to test this model. Our system will become more diversified and internally competitive, and we will see how the market for professorial talent sorts itself out. AM
Michael Bliss is University Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto.