The recent faculty unrest at Western and Carleton has turned in large measure around disagreements over the tenure system at those universities, and whenever tenure comes up, the comments from some corners are predictable. Why, people ask, should professors, unlike any other group of employees, get unbreakable contracts for life?
Leaving aside the fact that firing people at the drop of a hat is probably rarer in the non-academic world than people let on, and ignoring the fact that tenure is not an absolute guarantee of infinite employment, there are at least a couple of very good reasons to justify tenure, and they have been well-rehearsed elsewhere. Unlike most workers, university faculty members have to spend at least nine, usually many more years training for their job, and so tenure provides a counterbalance to all that lost income and pension earnings. Some professors don’t land a tenure-track gig til they are in their forties, while high school teachers of a similar age are already planning for retirement.
But the most important and compelling reason is that tenure is part of the academy’s guarantee of academic freedom. This might sound strange to you if your job is, more or less, completing the tasks that you are given, and either liking it or pretending to. But scholarship demands that professors be free to explore ideas where ever they may lead. Good research cannot be done if the researcher’s first concern is for justifying her position. Moreover, scholars must be confident that pursuing a particular line of research will not result in threats of dismissal because the boss, or the CEO, or the clients, or the government find it offensive, or awkward, or out of line with the thinking of whoever’s feelings they care about.
Though my own research is not especially controversial, my status as a tenured professor allows me to do things that I would not otherwise do. A while back it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a book about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, to try to get to the bottom of many of the things that had long troubled me about the play. But then, I thought, what if I do all the work and there is no book to be written? Well, I replied to myself, that’s what tenure is for. As it turns out, it seems like there is a book to be written, and I’m writing it. If I were not tenured, I probably wouldn’t be.
Would you like another instance of what the world would be lacking without tenure? You’re reading it right now. This blog would not exist were I not tenured because it would be too much hassle and too little fun if I had to make sure that nothing in it was going to get me called onto the carpet the next day. In the time I’ve been writing in this space, I have attacked my own professional association, called the sanctity of military service into question, raised concerns about the dominant approach to Native Canadians at universities (including a critique of what goes on at my own university), spoken out against the value of traditional religion, and admitted to laughing at students. This has earned me a fair bit of opprobrium from the public, but no administrator has ever written to me asking me to apologize or “clarify” my position. No one at my august institution has ever suggested I look elsewhere for a job.
They wouldn’t even try. I have tenure.