Tenure is the holy grail for many academics. It’s essentially a “permanent job” and, in my opinion, serves a vital function in society. A tenured academic cannot be threatened with job dissolution, and therefore is free to investigate and comment on the Powers That Be, including his or her own employer. Attempts to “revoke the tenure” of scholars are almost always uniformly issued by statists seeking to punish or inhibit “trouble-making” behaviour, i.e. activities that threaten the status quo. In other words, tenure is one of the lesser traditions that serve as an inhibitor against the slow creep of tyranny.
Of course, tenure is also cover for laziness and pointless academic trivia. But you take the good with the bad.
In my opinion, tenure probably won’t exist anymore in about 20 years. Some of you may applaud this development, and I can see your point. But it’s here with us now, and is one of the tantalizing lures that beckon us into a life of stress, deprivation, and overwork, with the hope that earned job security will allow us to unleash our minds for the glorious betterment of our citizenry.
Critics of the tenure system will usually point to senior academics who write the same paper every year and seemingly do little else. But they also conveniently ignore the oceans of young academics who work twice as hard as pretty much everyone you know, and the cadre of high performing scholars who produce patents, intellectual breakthroughs, social change, and community leadership. Dissolution of the tenure system threatens all of that.
What is fairly standard, at least in North American universities, is that a professor must apply for tenure. He or she is then judged based upon scholarly output, service to the university community, and teaching successes —whatever those things may mean. Details of the criteria and their indicators are explicitly spelled out in each university’s collective agreement, which is a contract between the university and whatever representation the professors have organized, usually in the form of a union.
In the USA, I am told that the tenure success rate is about 40%; whereas we Canadians have traditionally enjoyed a success rate of about 80%. The discrepancy is due to the hiring practices: in Canada, we vet our candidates at the interview stage. In other words, we tend not to hire someone unless we are confident that he or she is likely to receive tenure. In the USA, it’s easier to get an academic job, but harder to get tenure. Many famous American academics, like my hero, Carl Sagan, were denied tenure at their first institution. These days, particularly in Canada, denial of tenure can often mean a death knell for one’s career, given that so-called “tenure track” positions are rarer and rarer, and each new generation of applicants is noticeably more impressive than the last.
This is what I’m told. I really don’t know. I’m a new academic. I don’t know how any of this works. I’m pre-tenure, and thoroughly confused by all of this.
I just wanted to share with you some recent tenure stats from my employer, the University of Ottawa. The following graph was put together by the professors’ union, the APUO:
Some points, also from the APUO:
- The 2013 number “includes the applications that were reconsidered, i.e. went before the committee second time, before being successful. Otherwise the success rate in 2013 would only be 53%.”
- “These figures do not include the cases where professors have been informally asked to withdraw their application before going to official final decision.”
- “This [drop in success rate] is unprecedented at our university, and for all we know, in other universities in Ontario.”
I don’t know what to think of all this, except to say that it’s further meat for an upcoming “strike mandate” vote to be held by the union. Why? Well, according to the union, reasons given by the University for denial of tenure include:
- publications not in “ranked” journals
- no external funding
- insufficient graduate student supervisions
This may seem reasonable to many of you; but it’s important to note that none of these criteria appears in our collective agreement. Hence, according to the union, denial of tenure based on these criteria might be illegal.
Being a professor is a complicated thing these days.
What is driving this phenomenon? If you haven’t noticed, everything is changing. Everything. The economy is under siege. Our demographics as a society are shifting. And the internet has made distance education a real thing.
The rise of MOOCs, like edx, means that the non-Harvards of the world now have to re-brand themselves to compete with the Ivy League giants who can now garner clientele well outside of their home cities. Universities like mine have decided to pursue an extreme research agenda to help claim some of the new market share. This means that they may be increasingly relying upon the mainstream –though largely unproven– indicators of research excellence, including journal impact factors and external funding levels.
What’s the problem with this? First off, such a philosophy really undervalues the Humanities. A philosophy scholar can’t get the same grants as an Engineering professor. And the former will struggle to publish one sprawling tome every 18 months or so, whereas the latter’s lab can probably churn out 2-6 small papers per year. Given the larger number of science journals and papers, citation rates are also higher; so impact factors disfavour the Humanities researchers.
The “open access” revolution, which has seen many more academic journals being created around the world and in different countries, using new business models, defies the ranking tradition. So while it might be more ethical to publish in an open access journal (which are read for free by anyone in the world, and not hidden behind a pricey pay wall), such a journal will not receive an official impact factor calculation.
Also, available funding dollars have been reduced dramatically in recent years, as our economy compresses, yet there are more academics competing for them. So the handful of established stars continue to eat up an increasingly larger share of a rapidly dwindling pie.
In other words, the application of traditional indicators of research intensity to today’s research reality is patently unfair and only serves to reward the older, established, researchers in a handful of key domains. Under the evolving new paradigm, academia will eat its own young.
Change is underway in universities in other countries. It will be interesting –and a bit nerve-racking– to see how the situation unfolds here in Canada in the next few months and years.
First point of interest: next week’s strike vote!