There’s a line you tend to hear in Canadian universities: that tenure “is essential to the defence of academic freedom”. There’s no question that historically, in North America, the two concepts grew up together, and have been intertwined here for about a century. But it’s demonstrably false that tenure is the only way to defend academic freedom.
In Europe, tenure has an entirely different historical origin. Civil servants in many countries have tenure, and since university professors in many places were (and in some cases still are) civil servants, they simply picked it up as well. The link with academic freedom is non-existent; it’s simply an employment benefit. That doesn’t mean there’s no academic freedom in Europe. In France, academic freedom is protected by statute. In Germany, academic freedom is actually inscribed in the federal constitution (though with the anti-Nazi rider that academic freedom does not absolve teachers of loyalty to the constitution).
Then there’s the United Kingdom. The UK had tenure until the early 1980s, when it was abolished under the Thatcher government and replaced with a system of long-term contracts. But the same government also passed a statute which ensured that academic staff have the right to, “question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have”. To my knowledge, no serious observer thinks the state of academic freedom is any worse in the UK than it is, say, here. Certainly, it hasn’t prevented UK universities from being held in great esteem by academics around the world, as endless rounds of THE and QS surveys of academic reputation keep telling us.
Heck, let’s even look here within North America. Over the past couple of decades, the proportion of teaching staff with tenure has declined. And while this is widely held to have a number of drawbacks (as well as financial benefits), a reduction in academic freedom at these institutions isn’t usually one of them.
The point here isn’t that tenure fails to protect academic freedom – there are certainly lots of cases one could point to where it has been useful. Rather, the point is that it is not the only way to protect academic freedom. This is important because if academic freedom could be protected outside the institution of tenure, then tenure would simply become – as it is in Europe – a form of job security universities might wish to retain as an employment benefit, but which is not seen as a “right”. More to the point, it would actually be negotiable.
So, how about it: academic freedom legislation, anyone?