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.