Dispute over tenure reforms

November 21, 1997

NORTH AMERICA. Three Canadian professors who have written on "the crisis in Canada's universities" are calling for tenure at the country's universities to be reformed.

In Petrified Campus, David Bercuson, Robert Brothwell and Jack Granatstein claim that tenure has turned into job security for the incompetent and that it ought to be replaced with renewable contracts for five to seven years.

"Although we are not supporters of tenure, we have no doubt that if it is to exist, it should be based on the assessment of publications and research," they write.

In Canada, tenure has increasingly been attacked by several groups. Many part-time faculty and doctoral students have been suggesting that "dead wood" professors should make way for the hordes of under-employed academics, while several politicians and administrators, wanting to purge the universities of extra costs, have also been attacking tenure.

Last year, Peter Emberley, in his book Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities, also called for tenure to be replaced by substantive reviews of professors' work. He did warn that governments and granting agencies, who expect teaching to mirror the opinions and prejudices of the day, could be over-zealous in their plans to abolish tenure.

Bill Bruneau, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, is far more concerned at statements that call for the end of tenure. "There has to be a guarantee that professors are free to do research without worry that what they are saying is politically palatable," he said, defending tenure and calling the authors' work "cracker-barrel philosophy".

But in their book, the authors say that most university disciplines aim at teaching a corpus of knowledge rather than setting out differing or challenging viewpoints, and most professors are more likely to support the status quo than write about something contentious. "In the circumstances, is tenure for all necessary to protect the academic freedom of a tiny minority?" they ask, and add that academic freedom is protected by Canada's charter and has legal standing in collective agreements.

Even though McGill University principal Bernard Shapiro has come out publicly for tenure, his university may institute something similar to what the authors are calling for. McGill's senate recently voted to develop a system that would review tenure. Dr Shapiro suggests that one initial review for tenure might not be enough to check the ongoing work of a scholar.

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