Tenure challenged by private university

May 5, 2000

Four years after publishing a book that stoked debate on Canadian universities, Peter Emberley has further fanned the flames by accepting a private university job, where he is speaking out against the sacrosanct issues of public higher education and academic tenure.

The author of Zero Tolerance: Hot Button-Politics in Canada's Universities is the newly appointed academic coordinator for the country's first private liberal arts university.

The ideas coming out of the proposed university may cause a bigger stir than Dr Emberley could have caused with a book.

He feels academic quality should be strengthened by hiring only half the teaching staff for the university in Squamish, British Columbia, as tenured professors, a far lower number than at most Canadian universities. He says their reduced research time will result in a better quality of teaching.

The as yet unnamed private university, headed by former University of British Columbia president David Strangway, is scheduled to open in 2003 or 2004.

All of Canada's best-known universities are public institutions. With shrinking public funds in the mid-1990s, the lure of privatisation has been felt by some, but most have remained public. While many retired tenured professors have been replaced with contract teachers, institutions have not publicly criticised tenure.

Even when the new university hires tenured staff, it will go about it differently. The core of its tenure-track faculty will be composed of junior professors, while the remaining 50 per cent will be senior professors hired on a contract basis.

Canada's academic labour pool, with its glut of postdocs and overqualified part-time professors, should help the institution's quest to hire fewer tenured professors.

Defenders of tenure have criticised the plans. "Tenure is not about job security. It's about teaching students and academic freedom," said Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia. "What kind of academic life will they [private universities] have without a continuity of faculty?"

But Dr Emberley said students do not need the extra research that comes with tenured faculty. "Academics spend up to 60 per cent of their time on narrow interests that have no relevance to the university or the community as a whole."

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