Tenure: the great protector of academic freedom

By Mary Chan

"… the principles of academic freedom [are]… the right of the academic staff to examine, to question, to teach, to learn, to investigate, to speculate, to comment and to criticize without deference to prescribed doctrines…"
– from Article 6 of the University of Calgary Faculty Collective Agreement

Tenure. It’s not a word university students are very familiar with, and many who hear it aren’t sure what it means. Yet it is essential to the value of a student’s education, the integrity of a professor’s career and the very existence of a university itself.

"It boils down to assurance that a member of the academic staff has the academic freedom necessary to do intellectual exploration and research in an unconstrained way," said U of C Vice-president Academic Dr. Ron Bond. "Tenure is a guarantee of academic freedom to pursue the truth, wherever the truth may lead. It establishes the university as a place that is essentially immune to pressure from outside to subscribe to this, that or the other intellectual doctrine or dogma."

For Jim Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, tenure is inexorably linked to academic freedom, which in turn is linked to the very purpose of having a university.

"Universities really depend on academic freedom," he said. "It’s a safe territory for raising serious questions about aspects of knowledge. What tenure does is provide some safety so people can raise critical thoughts and questions."

According to U of C Students’ Union VP Academic Mark Hoekstra, the most important benefit students get from tenure is the integrity of their education.

"The value of their education and their degree is closely linked to the reputation of the university and the reputation of the professors teaching them," Hoekstra said. "That reputation is linked to the university or professors’ ability to teach what they want to teach and what they feel is important, even though it may not be mainstream or popular."

Bond believes students also benefit because tenure makes universities competitive.

"We would not be able to hire and maintain good faculty members if we didn’t have tenure because people are looking for that," he said.

Receiving tenure at a Canadian university can take anywhere from five to seven years. At the U of C, it takes six years. According to Bond, new professors begin in a tenure-track appointment in a probationary period. During that time, the professor receives feedback on his or her performance. When a professor finally applies for a tenure position, a peer review process begins. Committees make recommendations to the dean of the faculty concerned, who in turn makes a recommendation to the VP Academic.

Contrary to popular belief, professors who have tenure can be fired, though the university must go through a certain process to do so. Professors are evaluated every year through the Faculty Promotions Committees and the General Promotion Committees. Faculty are evaluated in three areas: teaching, research and service (which can include sitting on university committees and community service acts). The faculty member then receives an increment that ranges from zero to two. If a professor receives two successive zero increments, he or she could be fired.

"You can’t be fired for taking intellectual positions that are contrary to conventional wisdom," explains Bond. "But if your performance is unsatisfactory and is deemed unsatisfactory by your peers, the university can take action to dismiss a faculty member. There’s a fairly clear protocol of how dismissals work if performance has been deemed unsatisfactory."

Students have some influence in this process.

"We’re allowed to have a reasonable amount of input [in FPCs]," said Hoekstra. "In some faculties student reps are voting reps, some don’t. To have voting rights is important to us. If we’re present, that’s great."
Hoekstra added that teaching evaluations also play a part in evaluating teaching ability.

Though talk of tenure can become abstract, Turk cites an incident at the University of Alberta as an example of outside interference. An Edmonton think-tank, the Parkland Institute, which is associated with the U of A, held a conference on poverty in early March 1999. One of the speakers at the conference was Ontario-based economist Armine Yalnizyan, who presented on the widening gap between the rich and poor in Alberta.

In reply to Yalnizyan’s speech, Premier Ralph Klein wrote a letter to U of A President Dr. Rod Fraser, stating that the Parkland Institute was "factually challenged." He also wrote that, "The institution, which is associated closely and housed within the University of Alberta, appears dedicated to the manipulation and misuse of statistics to spread its apparent doctrine that Alberta is bad."

"It was clearly an attempt to intimidate," said Director of the Parkland Institute Professor Gordon Laxer, a political economist and sociology professor at the U of A. "If it was just a letter of complaint they would have sent it to us instead of sending it to the university. It implied that the university should take action against us.

"I see that as an attack on academic freedom," he added, though Klein’s office denied it was an attempt to limit the university’s autonomy. "I do think tenure was important at that point for me and people like me in the Parkland Institute."

Turk also cautioned against the growing influence of big business in universities, citing the increase in businesses funding universities as a cause of the growing influence.

"Universities are desperate as to how they’re going to fund themselves," he said. "They’re being told by government, ‘well, the way you do that is by forming more partnerships with the private sector, in order to get more money from the private sector.’ And that in turn makes universities more vulnerable to what corporations and businesses think they should be doing."

Bond believes that no matter how much freedom a society has, tenure is still necessary.

"We can’t be complacent about that," he said. "You always have to be vigilant about the possibility that academic freedom will be at risk."