Rethinking Tenure, Part IV: Labour Issues

Previous Parts in this Series:

Part of the reason I’ve decided to revisit this issue is that the first parts of this series seem to be getting just a bit of traction. As we say in French: «il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud» (“Strike while the iron is hot.” meaning that we should take advantage of the momentum we get).

Specifically, Vanessa Vaile over at New Faculty Majority has posted a short but enthusiastic comment on the first parts of this series. As I thrive on feedback (at least, in social media and in teaching), it gave me the push to do a follow up.

Vanessa mentions the COCAL conference, a meeting about “contingent academic labour.” Now, to be honest, while I knew it was happening in Quebec City this summer (during a meeting of Concordia’s part-time faculty union, our president had discussed it), I hadn’t really looked into it. Not that I’m not interested in the issue, but I’m not into formal conferences, anymore.

And (he says sheepishly), I’m worried that my position might not be well-received among (opinion) leaders in this movement. It’s one thing to post my thoughts on these issues and potentially debate them, in writing or face-to-face. It’s quite another to be directly confronted for a significant period of time by what might be a number of vocal activists of what I’ve described as “career part-timers.”  I’m all for thoughtful debates and I can stand up and discuss these things publicly. But I do have an issue when things quickly become heated. I may be way off, here, but in my (admittedly limited) experience with groups of “career part-timers,” the heat source has usually not been too far away, when members of these groups meet.

Now, let me stress that I’m not dismissing anything that any kind of part-timer, “career” or otherwise, does. I certainly understand the concerns with precarity and working conditions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been well-represented by strong unions at a number of places where I’ve thought and I do want to involve myself in some activities related to the responsibilities and rights of “contingent academic workers.” I just happen to think that the core issue isn’t so much with part-time work by itself (though I really wish we’d think about alternate models, including long-term contracts). Put bluntly, I’d say that the whole academic system could afford some rethinking. Which could have a huge impact on those who are currently part of the “contingent academic labour force” and those who will be member of the “academic labour” (contingent or not) in the future.

While this long preface has to do with part-timers, I’m really thinking about tenure. Not that tenure should necessarily disappear. But we might as well put some things in perspective. This is what this series is about. Not the defence of one group of people against another (I’d side with learners, if I were allowed to do so). Not a proposal to save academia in its current form. Not even a recipe for building the replacement to the current academia. Just some thoughts about things we may be taking for granted.

So…. I have been thinking about labour issues as I was writing the previous parts in this series. I didn’t mention these labour issues that frequently, but they influence much of what I say about tenure.

“In today’s job world” (at least, what I know of it), academic tenure seems quite unusual a system. Almost anomalous. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s similar to some employment in the public sector, especially in terms of “job security.” But academic tenure is it’s own thing. It’s “kind of special.”

Part of it has to do with prestige. Not only that “university[ref]Partly because, in Quebec, colleges are a separate programme between high school and university, I use “university” for just about any institution of higher education, including some which are called “college.” So, a professor at Bridgewater State College or Tufts College is a “university professor,” in the way I describe things.[/ref] professor” is among the professions with the highest social status in a number of social contexts (between dentist and architect, according to Davis et al. 2007). But there’s a gap between any other kind of academic work (graduate student, senior researcher, etc.) and the prestige associated with a university professor.

More so than a number of other professional groups, the group represented by university professors is often perceived as a select club. At least in the sense that membership doesn’t follow a similar set of guidelines as that of, say, lawyers or engineers. In that sense, other professions have more of a guild system while “academic tenure” is more similar to a club.

(It should be noted that multiple efforts are being made to make this “club” more open to representatives of a number of socially marginalized groups. I don’t mean to say that “the faculty club is still an old boys’ club” since I don’t have data on this. But, even in this case, the process seems quite specific to academic tenure. Sure, complaints about discriminatory hiring may refer to similar rules whether they concern administrators or professors. But it still seems, to me, that the way complaints and claims are discussed shifts, when it’s about academic tenure. )

The contrast between academic tenure and other professional systems seems especially obvious, to me, when thinking about the fact that university professors aren’t specifically trained to be university professors. Oh, sure, they’re trained in their disciplines and may even have some background in pedagogy. Some contexts even have mentoring programes. But there isn’t that clear a path to academic tenure. Many people who want to become university professors end up knowing about the process as they go along, often by talking with other academics. But even some advanced graduate students (including some PhD graduates) seem to be in the dark as to many aspects of academia. They’re expected to learn on their own much of what the job is about (i.e., committee work, advising, grant proposals, etc.). Many high-profile professions have very formal vocational training which makes the kind of preparation new faculty get sound less than minimal.

As a way to protect professionals, tenure also seems quite unusual. Nurses, architects, and surgeons all have orders, professional associations, or other groups to protect members. Such groups are often tied to a national or other state entity of some kind (in Quebec, for instance, these “orders” tend to be provincial). Tenure is given by a specific institution and is tied to appointment in a given “unit” (an academic department, faculty, or programme). There might be rules in terms of synchronizing different institutions’ tenure systems, like there are “transfer credits” and “course equivalencies” for learners. But, if there are, these rules don’t seem to widely known. For, say, surveyors and physicians, it might be very difficult if not impossible to work across national boundaries, but their associations protect them regardless of their place of employment. For university professors, it might actually be very easy to teach in a completely different part of the World but, unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t any “universal” protection going from one institution to the next.

All this to say that “university professor” is quite unlike some other professions.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that academic work isn’t really considered a professional career in the same sense as is dentistry, accounting, or psychiatry. In a way, it’s more like a “calling” like priesthood or a function of a person’s perceived skills, like some conceptions of art. In some people’s minds, the goals of academia are so lofty that, surely, these professional matters are either secondary to “true academic work” or even irrelevant to university professors. Not that faculty members don’t discuss these things at faculty meetings. But there’s a clear separation between “what the work is about” and all matters of professional issues.

Which brings me to unions. In few discussions of tenure is there an explicit notion that what tenure provides is what a union is supposed to provide. Tenure is too unlike union representation to be considered in the same context. Yet much talk about the importance of tenure revolves around things which are, “come to think og it,” pretty much what people in other lines of work consider to be labour issues, managed through unions, management structures, executive boards, and the like.

In my experience. teachers’ unions are typically quite active and quite powerful. But my experience might be unusual and/or biased.

Part of the potential bias can be attributed to the fact that I grew up in Quebec which is rather union-friendly and had a number of strikes by teachers (as well as by students). The two unions for “contingent academic labour” by which I’ve been represented in Quebec have gone on strike during the past few years (and both have eventually won some key points). In addition, my father spent most of his career as a special education teacher in a high school and what I saw from unions protecting teachers in Quebec was quite impressive to the kid that I was when some key events happened. So I might overestimate the power of unions.

The key notion, though, is that there’s a union-based way to deal with a number of labour issues affecting teachers at many levels, including higher education.

Many (but not all) university professors are unionized. In some cases, these unions are able to offer professors a lot of protection. Probably not as much as the tenure system, but often more than for many other jobs and professions.

As far as I can tell, union protection to university professors is quite effective in dealing with cases of undue firing. There are plenty of edge cases but it actually doesn’t sound like non-tenured but unionized “academic labour” is less protected than most other lines of work. And we’ve probably all heard of cases where tenured professors have been overprotected to the extent that it caused serious problems.

I insist so much on this because the refrain to the song about tenure is “academic freedom.” The notion is that, without tenure, professors wouldn’t have this very special type of freedom that only tenured professors get. Now, I do understand part of the difference between “academic freedom” and more general forms of freedom, including that associated with the set of responsibilities and rights given to people protected by a strong union. But that difference is often left unexplained.

In fact, several people have told me that tenure protects them from being fired from something they might say in class. It’s an interesting issue in its own right but it’s also one which may call for other solutions. Because it’s basically a labour issue. Besides that, though, it raises the question of exactly how free university professors really are. In my experience, people on the tenure-track clearly don’t seem very free at all (it’s almost like an overextended probation period). And, from the outside as well as from direct discussions with “insiders,” even tenured faculty don’t seem that free to work the way they would like.

Which is why I started with “contingent academic labour” (part-time and contract-based university teaching). While, as a context, “contingent academic labour” relates to limited job security (still, much more than that of your typical freelancer), there’s also a very clear freedom involved when you can decide to take or refuse courses, when you’re allowed to work elsewhere at the same time, and where the official “burden” you get is that of building and teaching courses. While it’s not the “carefree” lifestyle of the so-called “Bohemian,” it’s still closer to my personal ideal of freedom than requirements placed on most tenure-track or even a lot of tenured faculty.

So, in summary, tenure seems to be an unusual and probably not that effective a way to deal with professional and labour issues. And it’s probably not that straight a path to genuine freedom.

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