On Campus

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.

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