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It’s time to reconsider the usefulness of tenure


As a lifelong liberal (please note the lower case “l” – this is not a partisan polemic), I thought I would never have cause to say this: Margaret Thatcher was right. I disagreed with almost all of her policies when she was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and in 1988 I was quite concerned when she decided to end the concept of academic tenure in U.K. universities. I pondered what this might mean for my future employment as an academic (as I was completing graduate work in the U.K. at the time) and whether this spelled disaster for finding permanent, stable employment.

It should be said that Mrs. Thatcher’s primary reasons for dislike of tenure were more economic than philosophical and based on the concept – inescapable in Thatcherite thinking – of “value for money.” What Mrs. Thatcher saw in the U.K. academic community was a system which had become, again to use one of her favourite words, “soft.” Many academics, though certainly not all, had become too comfortable with their “job for life” situation and had simply stopped contributing in any substantial way to research or teaching.

Many of the larger departments in the U.K. in my own field were notoriously filled with academics who hadn’t published anything substantial for decades. Their teaching also reflected this situation through their lack of currency with their discipline and the fact that many had not created a new course or series of lectures for a very long time. The mandatory redundancy (i.e. firing) of several senior members of one high-profile department in the early 1990s “for cause” – based on their lack of output – was shocking at the time, but in hindsight was actually one of the best things for that department in the longer term.

In the U.K., the result of Mrs. Thatcher’s “reform” of the higher education system has resulted in both positive and negative changes over the last 25 years. On the positive side, the implementation of the RAE, or Research Assessment Exercise, launched in 1988, which rated the research output of every department in the country on a scale of 1 to 5 – was instrumental in raising research standards. Because the RAE was run every four years, individual academics were expected to submit four publications in each cycle, and these were graded based on the type of publication and the academic merit of each (i.e. a monograph was rated higher than an edited volume, and more prestigious high-impact journals more highly rated than lesser “society journals”), and all had to be peer-reviewed, a concept which only started to be widely applied in the 1980s.

This sorting of the wheat from the chaff in U.K. universities meant that departments were ranked, as they strived to ensure that they were 5 (or 5* for the very best), and to ensure that they were never a 3, which would spell doom for research funding. The result of this internal competition between departments actually increased both the volume and quality of publications. In a number of cases it led to universities headhunting the best and most productive scholars, just like football (soccer) teams hunt for star players to boost their standing in league tables. Essentially this system ensured that hard work and productive research paid off for those academics willing to put in the time and effort.

The down side was that many academics unable, or unwilling, to increase their output often had the hard choice of “redundancy” or early retirement. Some very poor departments were in fact closed, and in some cases the few remaining productive scholars were transferred to other thriving departments in another university.

With the proliferation of U.K. universities in the 1990s, when polytechnics became universities, and with the explosion in student numbers, it also became important to evaluate the teaching within departments and to rank individual departments’ “teaching quality” (known as the TQA, or Teaching Quality Assessment). Individual academics are now evaluated at least once every two years, and departments are ranked from 1 to 24, which creates competitiveness within departments across universities and provides a basis for the now fee-paying students to decide which institution to choose. It has also stimulated creativity in teaching methods and curriculum.

Of course any major changes such as described here had some negative aspects, such as redundancies, and some minor upheaval within individual universities, although in general these were minor in comparison to the mostly positive effect of the review of teaching and research.

So what’s my point you might ask? What have all these historic events in the U.K. to do with our Canadian system? I suppose the obvious question I am asking here is: Does the average Canadian university academic provide, to use Mrs. Thatcher’s term, “value for money”? Is their teaching and research output sufficient to offset what are increasingly some of the highest academic salaries in the world? My recent perusal of the “sunshine list” in Ontario revealed some extraordinarily well-paid professors, many of whom in my own discipline are very modest producers of published research of any note, despite their low teaching load and modest administrative duties. They have, like Mrs Thatcher’s academics, become “soft” and “unproductive.” And, even worse than this, they are clogging up the system, stifling the hiring of more energetic young scholars who find the possibility of a job in their discipline increasingly remote despite excellent qualifications and research. Instead, they tread water, so to speak, as adjunct or sessional lecturers at vastly underpaid stipends on a course by course basis.

So, in my opinion, it is time to reconsider whether tenure has outlived its initial usefulness, which was, of course, to allow academics to put forward new or unpopular ideas without fear of losing their jobs. Instead, we find increasingly that tenure is being used to ensure continued employment, despite falling research and teaching output, and is being used to prop up a “jobs for life” mentality. Key here I think is the fact that there are no other forms of employment in our society today that one can hope to have a “job for life” – especially if one is not productive.

Tenure has become a burden to the higher education system and is not helpful for universities as a whole. It is equally unhelpful for students, since new scholars with new ideas are being kept out of the system by many tenured academics who have frankly ceased to be productive researchers or teachers. Finally, it is absolutely ruinous to the public purse, since here in Canada (as in the U.K.) the vast majority of funds are still derived from government sources, despite increasing tuition fees.

Counter-intuitively, tenured professors see their salaries increase year-over-year, whether or not they are deemed research active or not. Overall, this is short-changing students of the quality teaching they deserve. In my view, good teaching requires an active and enquiring researcher who is willing to stay current in their discipline, and to push students to not only learn but also to expand the possibilities of learning. The abolishing of tenure and the implementation of a Canadian RAE and TQA may be just the ticket to achieving these goals.

Phil Octetes is a pseudonym for an adjunct professor of anthropology working at a Canadian university.

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  1. Marc Spooner / December 1, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    RE: It’s time to reconsider the usefulness of tenure, by Phil Octetes (In My Opinion, University Affairs, Dec 1, 2015)

    The anonymously authored piece by “Phil Octetes” certainly reads like a fictional Greek play in that it’s filled with fantastical, unsupported claims, mischaracterizations, and just plain falsehoods. I am dismayed that University Affairs would choose to publish such inflammatory drivel, but to do so at the end of term, when we, hard working academics, are at some of our busiest with marking and grant applications is just cruel.

    Where to begin?

    First, Octetes states: “we find increasingly that tenure is being used to ensure continued employment, despite falling research and teaching output….” Where is the evidence for such a claim? Contrary to what some, including apparently Octetes, believe, tenure does NOT protect professors from dereliction, incompetence, or fraudulence. We, in fact, undergo regularly scheduled and rigorous performance reviews at multiple organisational levels including a first reviewer (typically a department head, or associate dean), a committee of our peers, and ultimately, a dean. We are also reviewed and must provide evidence of competence in categories that include teaching, research, and service.

    Second, Octetes misses the fundamental point that tenure goes hand in hand with academic freedom in order to protect scholars who, in the process of carrying out their academic responsibilities, proffer independent and informed public critiques of policies, culture, or society, or who may be carrying out vital, yet unpopular research. Tenure is a cornerstone of curiosity-driven research and scholarly public-engagement.

    Third, let’s examine the U.K. Research Assessment Exercise [RAE]. Octetes claims that the RAE led to a “…sorting of the wheat from the chaff in U.K. universities… The result of this internal competition between departments actually increased both the volume and quality of publications.” Where is the evidence for this claim? In fact, RAE audit culture has led to such gross distortions in research output that whole realms of scholarship are devalued or left out of the equation altogether, including “slow”, time-consuming scholarship, books, Indigenous epistemologies, and publicly-engaged, participatory, open and alternative forms of research (Spooner, 2015).

    Audit culture has now crept from its initial and rightful area of application, financial verification, to becoming a method or technology of governance that is reshaping almost every aspect of higher education (Shore, 2008). The sociologist Michael Burawoy (2011) has examined how key performance indicators distort university practices and likens their effects to old school Soviet planning, where tractors were too heavy because their outputs were measured by weight, and glass was too thick because targets were in volume. Similarly, our coerced scholarship is turned into mere grist for research production mills, least-publishable units, and a “gamed” academy. Needless to say, we are all harmed as a result of such narrow and misguided applications of these audit procedures, management technologies, and arbitrary key performance indicators.

    Fourth, contrary to Octetes’ analogy that “in a number of cases it lead to universities headhunting the best and most productive scholars, just like football (soccer) teams hunt for star players to boost their standing in league tables.” Higher education is not a game and ought never to be treated as one. Sadly, in actuality, league tables and audit culture have lead to such extreme pressure to publish and meet specific research and funding targets that they consume most of a scholar’s time and output and drive some to dangerously high stress levels (due to unattainable continuous improvement demands), burnout, or worse yet, in some extreme cases like that of Stefan Grimm in the UK, to take one’s own life. No, Octetes can keep his disguised and harmful neoliberalist Taylorisms that do not improve, but rather harm, academics, academia, and society.

    Last, I’ve procrastinated far too long in crafting this rebuttal from the important tasks at hand like marking, writing, and providing feedback to students, but I could not, in good conscience, let this article go uncontested. Let us waste no more time on this misguided, ill-researched, and inflammatory opinion piece and get on with the consequential scholarship, teaching, action, and critical public engagement our world so desperately needs.


    Burawoy, M. (2011). Redefining the public university: Global and national contexts. In
    J. Holmwood (Ed.), A manifesto for the public university (pp. 27–41). New York, NY:

    Shore, C. (2008). Audit culture and illiberal governance: Universities and the politics of
    accountability. Anthropological Theory, 8, 278–298. doi:10.1177/1463499608093815

    Spooner, M. (2015). The deleterious personal and societal effects of the “audit culture” and
    a domesticated academy: Another way is possible. International Review of Qualitative
    Research, 8, 212-228.

    • Sean Lawrence / December 3, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      Thank you, Dr. Spooner (Marc, if I may).

    • E. Silber / December 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm

      Thank you for the comprehensive and thoughtful comment. You summarized pretty much everything that came to my mind reading the article in question.

    • S. Bull / December 6, 2015 at 5:17 am

      Thank you for this rebuttal — it expresses (in rather more articulate terms) what I would have written as well.

  2. Derek Sayer (FRSC) / December 2, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I have worked in UK universities from 1978-1986, the University of Alberta from 1986-2005, and Lancaster University in the UK since 2006. I thus have considerable experience in both systems. I have also chaired departments in both Canada and the UK. This article horrifies me because it is profoundly inaccurate in its description of the UK’s RAE/REF assessment and funding regime. The assessments provided by that regime are highly controversial, and many have criticized the unintended consequences of competition for REF rankings in terms of both restricting “risky” research and undermining faculty morale and collegiality. I provide links here to two articles (by me) that give a very different slant on the matter:

  3. Colleen Anne Dell / December 2, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Isn’t the fact that this article is anonymous speak in part to why we have tenure?!?

  4. Jim Waldram / December 2, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Again I wonder why University Affairs is publishing this anonymously! This is a great disservice to the university community. If this individual is not willing to stand up and be counted for his or her views then he/she should not be given a platform in University Affairs.

    • Léo Charbonneau / December 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      While I am generally uncomfortable with publishing opinion pieces anonymously, I agreed to the author’s request in this instance because this person is an adjunct professor with little job security. Yes, some may see irony there. Regardless, this person is entitled to their opinion.

      Léo Charbonneau, Editor, University Affairs

      • Leslie Kinton / December 2, 2015 at 4:53 pm

        Sorry Léo, your last sentence is a non sequitur; nobody is questioning his right to hold or publish an opinion. We`re just saying that his opinions are bullshit, and I use this word deliberately in the sense used by Harry Frankfurt, Professor (emeritus, Princeton University) in his monograph _On Bullshit_ (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005). The irony, of course, is that tenure protects the very freedom the author is attacking.

  5. Torrance Kirby / December 2, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Is this author stranded on a desert island somewhere?

    • Dr Strangely Strange / December 9, 2015 at 4:31 am

      indeed TK, or might just be a Trojan horse…..

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