Higher Education Strategy Associates

Beyond Tenure

Today, Higher Education Strategy Associates is releasing a paper called Beyond Tenure: Faculty Employment Protection at Canadian Universities (available here).

People make a lot of fuss about tenure.  They say things like “lifetime employment, now isn’t that cushy”, etc. etc.; or, on the flip side, “tenure’s absolutely essential to protect academic freedom”, heart of the university, etc. etc.  But tenure actually isn’t a guarantee of employment come what may.  Nothing prohibits a university from letting people go if the institution is in deep financial trouble, or if no one is taking courses in the particular subject in which one is tenured.

Well, nothing except for collective agreements.  If you look at the history of faculty unionization in Canada, the main catalyst for certification has tended to be job security rather than pay.  So you’d expect Canadian faculty collective agreements to have pretty strong language in terms of job protection.  But you might not expect exactly how strong that protection is, or it’s consequences.

This summer, my colleague Jonathan Williams and I sifted through the faculty agreements from all Canadian universities (to be fair, Jonathan did most of the heavy lifting).  We looked specifically at the kinds of ways faculty agreements limit the ability of universities to downsize, or re-deploy staff.  There are a number of ways to do this, including no lay-off clauses, minimum staff complements, redeployment clauses, etc.  We do lots of fun comparisons in the publication, noting which institutions have ended up negotiating which kind of approach to terminations, which institutions come close to having CAUT’s “model” contract, etc.

(On the whole, I think my favourite faculty agreement in the country is Acadia’s.  It is seemingly one of the most rigid, requiring the university to keep a minimum complement of 140 academic staff at all times.  Except if you read the annexes, this clause is in suspension for the duration of the current agreement for the simple reason that both sides acknowledge that Acadia can’t afford that many staff – at the moment, they are about 30 profs short of the target.  Yet the clause has to stay in.  Why?  Morale purposes?  It’s not entirely clear.  Pretty goofy.)

But our main focus is on what are called “exigency clauses”: the processes through which a university can attempt to reduce staff complement in a financial emergency.  And what tortured processes these are.  Committees get created to determine the exigency’s severity.  Then, institutions are required to take certain steps before even considering laying-off faculty; in a few cases, firing all the contract staff first (now there’s some solidarity!), or selling off buildings and other assets (the case at Brock, Concordia, Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent, Queen’s, StFX, and Wilfrid Laurier).  Even if all that is satisfied, then the university still has to provide a layoff notice period (median length: 12 months), and then there is a requirement for severance pay on top of that (median length: 12 months).  The upshot of all this is that it is a rare institution where management can get away with spending less than 2 years’ worth of salary on a professor that eventually is released.

Now, this is really just faculty unions doing what unions are supposed to do: raising the price of layoffs so that management will find other ways to save money.  But in a business where labour costs take up 75% of all income, being too effective at this game can cause real problems for institutions’ ability to manage costs.  And that’s kind of where universities are now.  The rules in collective agreements are so restrictive in terms of reducing staff numbers in case of exigency that, in effect, the only realistic option available to management is to freeze hiring and reduce numbers by attrition.  This is basically tantamount to saying that universities are incapable of shrinking strategically: their future shape will be determined by the current age profile of the faculty, and nothing else.

And remember: none of this has anything to do with tenure, academic freedom, or anything else.  It’s all on top of tenure, purely about job protection in the face of economic uncertainty.  Nice if you can get it, but as Nova Scotia’s Bill 100 shows, if unions get too successful at this, governments can and will intervene to provide universities ways to circumvent collective agreements in extremis.  And perhaps more to the point, if firing someone is this difficult, then maybe – just maybe – institutions will become less eager to hire professors in the first place.  For those wondering why casualization and increasing use of sessionals is a thing, you’ve got your answer right here.

I hope you all enjoy reading the document, and feel free to let me know what you think.

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