The future of academic tenure

It is generally reckoned that the concept of academic tenure was developed to its most pure state in America. Under United States custom and practice, once an academic employee in a university has been awarded tenure, they cannot be dismissed from their university employment except on certain grounds related to conduct or performance. The concept is closely tied to academic freedom, and this means that the expression of opinions or views or the pursuit of research as determined by the academic in question cannot be a good ground for dismissal.

Although tenure has, as noted above, been a particularly important ingredient in American higher education practice, it is in the United States that it has most recently come under the heaviest fire. A number of books and comments in influential newspapers have called into question the value of academic tenure, and have raised the question as to whether it actually inhibits innovation and facilitates or promotes unfair working practices and exploitation.

Last week the New York Times ran a book review in which some of these issues were raised. The author, Christopher Shea, summarised the view of academic tenure from outside the academy as follows:

‘At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?’

There are resonances here with public comments that have been made in Ireland: that academics (or tenured academics) are a privileged group, over-paid and outside any reasonable system of performance review, who neglect their real work in the sense that their teaching duties are excessively modest, and who work according to restrictive practices that have long been abolished everywhere else. The notion that they constitute an elite or privileged group is reinforced by complaints that non-tenured academics, such as probationers, fixed terms lecturers and part-timers, are exploited and under-paid, while often performing the key teaching functions that tenured academics neglect.

It seems to me that academic tenure remains, and must remain, an important element of higher education. Without it, it would be hard to secure the freedom of intellectual thought and the development of new knowledge. But it has got a bad name outside the academy, and this needs to be recognised and addressed. As the proportion of those who have tenure declines and as universities rely more and more on casual and short-term staff (a development that has been accelerated by the ’employment control framework’ in Ireland), tenure may begin to look like an enclave for a small and ageing elite who claim special privileges, including the right to resist all change. Of course this is not how universities see it, but the wider public has not been persuaded that this is not a true picture. In the meantime, some of the growing hostility to higher education derives from this view.

Perhaps the key issue is that, to outsiders, academic tenure together with academic freedom look like an insistence on self-regulation, which is a concept that has now been dismissed fairly comprehensively for all other professional groups and bodies. If we are to succeed in retaining it for higher education, we need to be able to demonstrate that it will not be abused. And that is a case that, so far, we have not made very well. We need to get on with it.

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One Comment on “The future of academic tenure”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    We need to ensure also solidarity with other workforces whose conditions are being eroded and moved onto ‘flexible’ temporary contracts away from proper, secure employment. There is a deep ideologically driven push to this targeting and public lambasting which is aiming to privatise public services, push free-market economic ‘rationale’ into all aspects of life and essentially lower the quality of life for us all by increasing insecurity and eroding hope of ‘realistic’ alternatives. Universities are of course constrained significantly by government but by increasingly embracing short-term contracts, casual staff, etc as the means of delivering core services then they are in serious danger of being complicit in their own long term decline and replacement by private agencies as well as in the erosion of public services. In Ireland of course things are different and complicated by the ECF!

    What’s needed is a clearer, simpler redefinition and championing of the nature of the social contract between citizen and state that firmly puts market economics in its place and decouples key aspects of life from ‘market forces’.

    For further details, you’ll have to await my return from the British Library in about 10 years time…I’ve a feeling it might run into a few volumes, but I might write an executive summary version ‘Academics of the world, you have nothing to lose but your staff car park fob…..’

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