Our new project on this blog is working through some of the issues that came up at an academic freedom panel at my university on Monday.
Yesterday, we began to explore the relationship between tenure and academic freedom in preparation for putting some thought into worries some of my colleagues expressed that tenure may in fact erode academic freedom by creating a two-tiered system in which some university community members have academic freedom and some don’t. In that post, we looked at UNESCO and AAUP language that tightly connects tenure to academic freedom. UNESCO, though, used the phrase “tenure or its functional equivalent.” Today, then, we’ll keep chipping away at the broader topic by trying to unpack what “functional equivalent of tenure” means.
The OED tells us that the relevant usage of the word originated in the U.S. and means the following: “Guaranteed tenure of office, as a right granted to the holder of a position (usually in a university or school) after a probationary period and protecting him against dismissal under most circumstances.”
That’s a good start, but it’s a little thin. Here’s a fuller elaboration of what tenure is from University of Waterloo’s policy “Tenure and Promotion of Faculty Members”:
Tenure is meant to provide institutional support for academic freedom (see the Article on Academic Freedom in the Memorandum of Agreement between the University and the Faculty Association). The pursuit and dissemination of knowledge and the attainment of understanding through scholarship and teaching, which are essential functions of a university, occur best in an atmosphere in which free inquiry and discussion are fostered. Free inquiry may at times bring a faculty member into conflict with society, governments or the University itself. Tenure provides security of employment against pressures that might arise from such conflicts, in the belief that the University and society at large benefit from honest judgments and independent criticisms rendered by scholars who are free from fear of possible consequences that might arise from giving offense to powerful individuals or groups.
Tenure provides stability for both individual faculty members and the University. Tenure provides a faculty member with an environment conducive to long-term scholarly work. The University, for its part, is assured of a continuing group of teachers and scholars committed to the University, around which it can plan and from whom it can draw its academic leadership.
Combining the OED with the UW policy, the following would seem to be the core features of tenure:
- a guarantee
- provided by an academic institution
- for holders of academic positions
- that guarantee preceded by a probationary period
- that guarantee providing security of employment
- that guarantee freeing holders of academic positions from “fear of possible consequences that might arise from giving offense to powerful individuals or groups”
- that guarantee providing stability to both individuals and institutions
Any functional equivalent of tenure would need to possess these (or very similar) core features. So, what might that look like?
The answer varies a bit from institution to institution and from legal context to legal context, but let me tell you what it looks like — and what it doesn’t look like — at University of Waterloo, where I work.
At University of Waterloo, instructors (typically) are either “sessionals”, “lecturers”, or “professors”.
Let’s start with professors because they’re the most familiar type of appointment. You know more or less what professors are or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. At University of Waterloo, junior professors serving a pre-tenure probationary period are called “assistant professors.” Tenured, mid-career and senior professors are called, respectively “associate professors” and “professors” (sometimes termed “full professors”). We needn’t worry about functional equivalents to tenure in this category because we just know that assistant professors don’t have tenure, and associate and full professors do have tenure.
But this varies from place to place. At some universities, tenure and promotion are detached, so one could be a tenured assistant professor. And it is worth noting that in recent years some U.S. states have moved toward abolishing tenure.
At the other end of the spectrum from professors are sessionals. A sessional is someone hired to teach a particular course. Their contract obliges them to teach that course, and their pay is a flat amount for teaching that course. Sessionals do not typically acquire seniority. And they typically have to apply for work over and over, from one term to the next. The position of sessional lacks lots of fundamental features of tenure — most notably, security/stability and probation. Sessionals are not probationary in the sense that their work is not intended or represented as a “test” of their suitability for a permanent position. There is no functional equivalent of tenure for sessionals.
Ok. So who are the lecturers? Typically, lecturers have a heavier teaching load than professors and no (or not much of a) research load. Lecturers are appointed full-time (usually), on salary, and have a suite of tasks they are assigned to do — this suite often more flexible and evolving than those of sessionals. At Waterloo, there are two kinds of lecturers — “definite term lecturers” and continuing lecturers. Definite term lecturers are hired for a finite period; their contracts have end dates. Continuing lecturers are permanent employees of the university. Further, university policy says that continuing lecturers must first have been definite term lecturers. So, while not all definite term lectureships are intended as probationary, all continuing lecturers completed what in retrospect served as a probationary period a definite term lecturers. Just as assistant professors do not have tenure, definite term lecturers do not have the functional equivalent of tenure. By contrast, continuing lecturers at Waterloo could plausibly be said to have the functional equivalent of tenure. They have secure, permanent academic positions at at university, that position having been preceded by a probationary period.
But do they have a guarantee that frees them from “fear of possible consequences that might arise from giving offense to powerful individuals or groups”? Well, yes and no. They don’t have the kind of symbolic guarantee that is conveyed by the word “tenure”. However, they are protected by the very same memorandum of agreement as their associate professor and full professor colleagues such that if they were ever terminated for having given offense to powerful individuals or groups, they could be just as confident as a tenured colleague of winning at arbitration or in court.
So, it seems that continuing lecturers at Waterloo have the functional equivalent of tenure even though they don’t have the symbolic reassurance of the word “tenure”.
It is worth noting again that the situation varies from university to university. The terminology and the rules are different even between University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, which are situated not only in the same city but on the same road. And the more universities you look at, the more the differences multiply. And there are weird exceptions within each university (ergo my health use of such terms as “usually” and “typically” in the above account).
Ok. So, now that we know more or less what the functional equivalent of tenure is, we’re in a position to consider whether the existence of tenure (and functional equivalents of tenure) supports academic freedom. We’ll start on that tomorrow.