Job Security and Tenure

Unless they do something really wrong or stupid, tenured professors can’t be fired


One of the truisms of labour is that employees who are difficult to replace are least vulnerable to exploitation. Highly skilled employees can negotiate from positions of strength and can defend their individual interests. Less skilled employees, however, are very vulnerable. They need to band together in order to protect their interests – notably security in their employment. This is very often the biggest issue in disputes. Job security is one of the basic motivators of the labour movement.

Some time ago I wrote a piece about the strike at York, and outlined various issues that I feel aren’t properly understood. I think I need to add something new to that list. Casual instructors at York are making demands about job security. Some interpret these demands as insistence on status approaching tenure. I think this is a horrible misunderstanding of the situation, and I’d like to address that idea.

Tenure is a very specific basket of rights and protections enjoyed by professional academics. One of the most significant features is the kind of job security most people can only dream about. Short of doing something really wrong or really stupid (sometimes even then) it’s very hard for a professor to get fired once he or she has tenure. There are historical reasons for this, based around intellectual freedom. The idea is that professional academics should be free from any concern about the popularity or the public perception of their research and work. So even the fear of losing the job itself is eliminated as a constraint.

There are two completely different topics here. The first is job security in context of labour relations, intended to protect the employment of more vulnerable employees. The second is job security in context of intellectual freedom, intended to protect academic integrity. The result may look somewhat similar, but the rationale is completely different – even opposite in some ways. Professional academics are among the least in need of job security for the traditional labour-based reasons, as they are not easily disposed of or replaced. And contract instructors have no need of tenure security for the typical reasons either, as they are not employed to conduct research anyway.

It’s important to point all this out because we need be clear about what contract instructors are actually seeking. Observers get very confused over this and sometimes it seems even the unions speaking on behalf of instructors aren’t very clear. Contract instructors want job security. They want it not because they imagine they deserve something like tenure but rather for all the same reasons that any employee wants job security. They want to not be exploited. And surely that’s understandable.

Tenure is a quirky and specific sort of privilege. And it is a privilege. Those who turn to contract instructors and say, “you haven’t earned that” are quite right, in many ways. But essential job security should not be something that only the privileged few receive. The entire labour movement is geared toward avoiding that. It’s a mistake to imagine that every demand for security is a demand for tenure. Tenure doesn’t have a monopoly on the concept of secure employment. In fact, it’s a tiny exception to the general trend that security of employment is most important for the less privileged.

I’ll add that some find it difficult to think of contract instructors as vulnerable employees, but the fact is that they are. Tenure-stream positions are hard to fill because they are reserved for the most accomplished people in the various fields and there is great competition out there to recruit the best. But contract teaching very often goes to anyone with a PhD and the ability to teach a basic class. The fact is there’s a great oversupply of such people. And so these PhDs, despite their high levels of education, are in fact vulnerable to exploitation. It’s an obvious danger, when there’s a line of qualified people waiting to take your job away, and very little to distinguish between any of you.

Make of all this what you will. Not everyone feels the same way about organized labour, job security as a right, or even the institution of tenure. But please, if you want to understand what’s going on in higher education, don’t confuse demands for job security with demands for tenure. They are not the same thing at all, and never were.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.


Job Security and Tenure

  1. Interesting article. How do contract faculty in other countries treat the tenure system? Is there a better model that finds a better balance?

  2. I think that you mischaracterize the position of tenured academics.

    All but a few are as fungible as adjuncts. In light of the academic market, the difference between most tenured and adjunct academics, in respect of capacity for research, teaching, and administration, is vanishingly faint. These two classes are separated, in most instances, not by professional capacity so much as by luck and social capital during the few years before and after graduation: reputation of the doctoral institution and committee, fashionability of the thesis, connections, family and institutional support, personality, and sometimes also race, sex, sexuality, and ideology.

    I am not and have never been an academic of any sort; like you, I am in law. But I was a postgraduate student before deciding on law, and I have then and since seen friends who continued in my prior field of study succeed and fail to make decent academic careers. In some cases, success and failure was clearly tied to professional capacity. But in most cases, they seemed to be running a more disheartening race.

    One friend described it to me like this.

    Suppose you had to one hundred medals to distribute in a foot race of a thousand contestants. (Are there ten applicants for every tenure-track job? No; usually, there are several hundred.) The first thirty candidates come in ahead of the pack, and the last 300 come in behind it. But the remaining runners come in so closely packed together that it is practically impossible to rank them.

    How do you distribute the remaining 70 medals?

    The usual answer to this question is twofold. First, because the medals are handed out by more judges than recipients, the answer varies and is contentious. Second, because humans are humans, whether you come from a known village, how well you get on with the judges and fit into the department, and that you chime with their particular sense of propriety carry most weight.

    If this characterization is even broadly correct, it suggests that were most young assistant professors removed from their posts and replaced with young adjuncts, little change in the quality of teaching, research, and administration would result, and those adjuncts would achieve tenure with about the same regularity as the assistant professors they replaced.

    Unsurprising, most of my adjunct friends strongly approve of this argument, and most of my assistant professors friends strongly insist that no, or at least very few, assistant professors were ever “in the pack”. Surprisingly, most of my elderly professor friends agree with the adjuncts. They are passed having anything to prove or disprove, and they have wrestled to often with the irrationality of hiring, and seen too often good students passed over and poor students hired, to pretend that most professors are not, like most people in any field, “in the pack”.

    But then tenure is not, at least for most young professors, primarily about intellectual freedom after all. (And, incidentally, as anyone on the tenure track can tell you, the freedom to say anything without being fired is not the right to have every word weighed equally in tenure or promotion review. Write this, and your work has “scholarly merit”; write that, and your research “makes scant contribution to the field”.)

    And the fair response is therefore to award medals only to the first 30 runners and to give ribbons to the 670, that is, to continue tenure for the very few scholars at the front of their field and to make everyone else a teacher with a similar but more modest form of security. Not surprisingly, this is how academia used to be: multilayered, with each layer having different degrees of security and independence.

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