Academic freedom and tenure: some further thoughts (Donncha Kavanagh)

Two weeks ago a number of Irish academics signed a letter published in the Irish Times in which they voiced concerns about the future of academic freedom. One of the signatories, Dr Donncha Kavanagh, Senior Lecturer in Marketing in University College Cork, here explains his own thoughts in relation to this issue.

I signed the petition because I support the idea of academic freedom, not least because I’m wary that hostility to academic freedom might be masking a deeper and dangerous philistinism.  We may be quite a bit away from the Nazi book-burnings and sacking of academics, but that episode reminds us of the need to put boundaries on the extent of state control.  Indeed, one part of our current problems is a systemic failure of governance (and a general lack of understanding of the distinction between management and governance) which often rests on a separation of powers.  For instance, the short-termism of the politician should be balanced by the long-termism of the civil servant and the academic, a distinction that projects such as the Strategic Management Initiative may have blurred. The state then, as argued by Kant in 1798, has a duty to protect academic freedom in order to enhance if not ensure the rule of reason in public life, while the university has a commensurate duty to counter the excesses of the state and its desires. Sadly, my sense is that the university has not always met the latter duty, though this is perhaps linked to the current fetish for the physical sciences and the lack of regard for the social sciences.

But neither should one be in thrall to academic freedom, or use it to simply buttress selfish desires for permanent employment and security.  In this regard, I think academic freedom should not always be bundled together with the concept of ‘permanency’ (which varies in meaning depending on context).   A ‘permanent’ job in Dell computers means that it is ‘permanent’ until such time as the market dictates that the job is no more.  In contrast, a permanent job in the civil service (which includes but is not exclusive to those that have academic freedom) means something quite different because the risks of losing that job are much smaller (though not nil).  These differences can and should be reflected in relative salary levels (which, of course, are also determined by other issues such as the desire to attract the best applicants).

If academic freedom is a meaningful privilege that comes with real responsibilities, it must have an elitist dimension, which means that there needs to be a robust process to determine who is accorded this freedom (qua responsibility). In that context, the well-meaning endeavours of the unions to stop the abuse of temporary workers (through practices such as the rolling over of temporary contracts) in the industrial sector has had an unintended consequence on the concept.   There should, in my view, be a long probation period ­ at least 5 years, though it might also be linked to performance criteria – before an academic is accorded ‘tenure’, during which time he or she must have clearly demonstrated the necessary qualities in terms of teaching, research and administration, as well as a good capacity for independent and critical thinking.  Thus, ‘tenure’ should mean something quite different from a permanent job in Dell or a permanent job in the university.  And I would see nothing wrong with having separate cohorts of teaching staff in a university, some with and some without tenure, and some on contracts that are rolled over (but not of indefinite duration).   This might require changes to employment legislation, but if so, then so be it.

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16 Comments on “Academic freedom and tenure: some further thoughts (Donncha Kavanagh)”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    This is not a comment on the content of this post, I might have already commented with reference to a previous one on a similar topic, what instead I wish to note is the use, even while negating it, of what I’ll simply define as the *Nazi metaphor* (‘We may be quite a bit away from the Nazi book-burnings and sacking of academics’). For reasons that it might be useful to ivestigate (a decline in the art of sophisticated rethorical skills ?)there is currently a recurrence of such a *Nazi metaphor* in international political discourse and the media, this short article ‘On Holocaust Memorial Day, Hitler and Nazi Metaphors as Prevalent as Ever’

    discusses recent events in the American context.
    The use of such metaphor might not be as rampant here as it is in the US however its entirely inappropriate use is a worrying sign of an ever-more-bitter political discourse…as academics we should be more mindful!

    • Vincent Says:

      Hmmm, I tend to agree with you. The use of the Nazi to bolster an argument with rhetorical flourish simply kills that argument stone dead. Where on earth can the anyone take the argument from that point. And it’s use so very early will blind one to anything written after.
      And I certainly don’t see how Kant has anything to do with the price of eggs, surely Utilitarianism and Mill the man for this job.

  2. Anne
    The link you include does list “entirely inappropriate” uses of the Nazi metaphor, but I would (of course) argue that I have used it quite appropriately. Far from being a rhetorical flourish, it’s no bad thing to remember historical examples of anti-intellectualism (Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain come to mind), even if this causes some discomfort.

    If you’d prefer a more developed discussion of the fragile and ambiguous relationship that the university has had with, not only the State, but a series of powerful institutions, see

    On Vincent’s point, I was referring to Kant’s “The Conflict of the Faculties” which was a key contribution to the emerging concept of academic freedom (see ).

    Donncha Kavanagh

    • anna notaro Says:

      Donncha, many thanks for the interesting link, I have no objections to remember historical examples, it would be however an historical mistake to conflate Mussolini’s (very particular)anti-intellectualism with Nazi-burning book practices. For the record, Italian fascism articulated its own intellectualism, see the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals (1925) by Giovanni Gentile which established the political and ideological foundations of Italian Fascism. More to the point, my original comment simply meant to highlight a trend as far as the use of (Fascist)Nazi-metaphors are concerned, which testifies to an increased radicalization within contemporary cultural/media discourse,

    • When I became Head of Department in another university some years ago, I introduced a change to how we ran examinations. One senior member of staff who strongly disagreed with me said, at a departmental meeting, that what I was proposing was a ‘Third Reich concept’. Since my proposal was about introducing more flexibility into the examination process, I replied by saying that I wasn’t sure Hitler had ever expressed views about English university exams. And I added that Third Reich metaphors were always inappropriate because they trivialized the holocaust and the overall brutality of Nazism.

      However, in this case Donncha has not actually used a Nazi *metaphor*, but rather has pointed out that what led to Nazism developed in certain ways and that we need to be vigilant. That is an appropriate way of arguing, and it is different from using Nazi metaphors. So I think it was OK. However, I agree with Anna that caution is always needed.

      • Vincent Says:

        If going the German route, there are more than enough examples without going down that very particular road. There is the DDR. Hardly what one might call a bastion of freedoms academic or otherwise. Then there is the firing of the academics from the old DDR universities. There is the old Imperial Structure. Hardly a breeding ground for Academics.
        And for what it’s worth, Kant had a view which was way more human centered. Where the base was the person not the corporate organization.

  3. Al Says:

    I wonder how long the queues for an academic career would be if your proposals were adapted. Third level in Ireland is in danger of being hse’d, code for drowned by bureaucracy.

    Another point:
    “he or she must have clearly demonstrated the necessary qualities in terms of teaching, research and administration, as well as a good capacity for independent and critical thinking.”

    Who judges this, and then who judges them?
    While we may be surrounded by talent, there hasn’t been too many examples of wise and even conservative leadership in the country as a whole.

    Alot of the ‘opinion leaders’ within third level haven’t copped on

  4. Al Says:

    Apologies, laptop on life support here.

    Alot of the ‘opinion leaders’ within third level haven’t copped on that the nation in its current state may not be able to fund the current model.

    It was easy being on the pigs back, tis time to remember what you land in when you come off!!!

  5. Al
    Academics, in the main, would determine who is given tenure, much as happens today.

    My general theme would be ‘manage the boundaries’ by being very strict in determining who is and who is not given tenure, which means having a robust and meaningful academic ‘probation’. A key point about tenure is that once it has been granted then academics with tenure should be trusted with autonomy and their own good judgement and not tied up in bureaucratic processes that, oftentimes, are based on mistrust.

    And yes, salary levels and working conditions must be at an appropriate level to attract the very best and brightest into academia. I suppose I’m advocating something akin to the US academic system which has a strict tenure system with a long probabation, high salaries, and which is largely devoid of the kind of ‘quality’ processes we seem to have imported from the manufacturing sector. (I sometimes wonder if the 1990s fetish for quality systems was an unintended consequence of Irish industrial policy, which, since 1958, had focused on attracting manufacturing plants to the country).

    • Al Says:

      Forgive my cynical ways, but I would be interested in the form of governance that would deliver a just model.

      Implicit in what you say is an ethical formation during the apprenticeship towards tenure?
      Those who would judge would also have to practise that ethic…
      Who watches the watchmen?

  6. Governance is too complex an issue to address in a few paragraphs, but here goes…

    The dominant governance model today is what one might call the ‘egg-timer’ or double triangle model. From From the bottom it goes as follows: workers-managers-CEO (in the middle)- board of directors – shareholders/stakeholders. This embraces and celebrates the idea of hierarchy (as represented by both triangles – narrowness indicating power). It’s a model that has migrated from the corporate world into universities, with little comment (see though Woodbury, Robert L. (1993) “Why Not Run a Business Like a Good University?” Christian Science Monitor, March 23 (19-23)).

    However, staying simple, there are other ways of governing other than following this ‘double triangle’ model. For instance, a ‘twin towers’ model provides a separation of powers that is parallel rather than hierarchical (e.g. legislature/judiciary; Bicameral parliaments; Sovereign/Fool; etc.). Alternatively, a distributed power system envisages a network (rather than a triangle/hierarchy) where power is distributed (unevenly and dynamically) among actors (each of which might be modeled as a double triangle, twin tower, or network). Traditionally, universities have followed this networked model, as witnessed by their sophisticated and complex use of committees and task forces, and the concept of primus inter pares which delimits the power of the CEO/VC/President. Indeed the shape that is most consistent with primus inter pares is the circle in contrast to the triangle that represents hierarchy. I find it useful to refer to this network power structure as a ‘heterarchy’ to distinguish it from the ideal-typical hierarchy. Heterarchies, of course, might contain hierarchies within the network.

    Heterarchies are fluid, dynamic and fuzzy, with power, authority and responsibility changing based on one’s position at any moment in time (one might be a lecturer, a governor, an external examiner, an interviewer, a strategist, an employee, a manager, a friend all in the one day). And our relationship with academics in other universities is equally dynamic – they’re colleagues with whom we cooperate and compete. To my mind, heterarchical power and governance structures have served academia remarkably well, and should be fostered, studied and developed.

    One strength of a heterarchy is that it’s adept at containing ‘bad apples’ that emerge within the network through containment and through reallocating functions to neighbouring elements. All of this happens in an emergent manner, but it means that the entity, in total, is largely immune from the ‘bad apple’ syndrome, which is not the case in a hierarchy where power is concentrated at the top.

    So that’s my preferred governance model. In relation to Al’s other two questions – yes, there has to be a strong ethical formation during the apprenticeship and a moral ethic needs to infuse the heterarchy (the same technologies, structures and practices of management and governance could operate in one organisation selling child slaves and in another selling daffodils).

    And my answer to your third question is that other watchmen watch the watchmen. One of the strengths of academia/heterarchy is that the watchmen (if one pardons the gendered term) transcend the individual university/organisation. It may be elitist, but it is the responsibility of academics to govern academia. I don’t buy the idea that there is some other more knowledgeable group to which this important task can or should be deferred.

    • Al Says:

      Impressive and detailed response.
      Will have to put on the kettle and think about that for a few days…

      Would you see a present day expansion of executive power with the creation of Vice Presidents and the like, and also spin off’s or other type centers for XYZ where a non academic management structure has been put in place?

      I think the ethic is very important, but when ones success is currently measured in citations, etc, academia reflects greater society where the pressure to well interacts with the pressure to do good.

      Tip of the hat for the third answer, although I wonder what the post Hunt world will be like for the senate.

      Thanks for the response
      Cuisine for the brain on a stormy night…

  7. There are many areas of university endeavour that are best left to non-academics. However a problem arises when the classic functional organisational structure is imported into the university, especially if this importation means that the university’s core activity (teaching and research) becomes just a functional area (essentially ‘operations’ though never called this) competing for top table space with other functional areas (HR, finance, communications, quality, marketing, etc.) Hence I would be very slow to give out titles like VP for X, or VP for Y and very very slow to constitute a ‘top management team’ separate from Academic Council. Academic Councils may have grown unwieldy over time, but rather than developing new, parallel structures, I think the effort is better invested in reworking Academic Council (or its equivalent) so that it is fit for purpose.

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