Late last year, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) initiated a process to eliminate 170 academic jobs to cut costs. The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) found AUT’s approach breached its collective employment agreement with staff and their union and ordered it to withdraw the termination notices.
Tertiary education runs on an insecure labour force in New Zealand and elsewhere. The AUT decision illustrates that even traditionally secure positions are becoming less so.
Tenure is the traditional protection for academics in the tertiary sector, but New Zealand does not have tenure at its universities.
Tenure is more than a perk
A common argument against tenure is that it leads to a complacent, under-motivated university professor. These concerns are hypothetical – evidence that tenure causes productivity differences is lacking. In fact, one of few large studies on the subject found the opposite. Good administrators should be able to manage any actual productivity issues as they do in all other workplaces.
On the other hand, lack of tenure creates risks for free societies. Tenure is common practice in other liberal democracies. UNESCO says:
Security of employment in the profession, including tenure […] should be safeguarded as it is essential to the interests of higher education.
Tenure is important, if not indispensable, for academic freedom. Academic freedom is essential to a university’s mission, and this mission is a characteristic of a democracy. As University of Regina professor Marc Spooner put it:
A country’s institutional commitment to academic freedom is a key indicator of whether its democracy is in good health.
Scholarship is not piecework
The ERA said AUT misunderstood terminology in the collective employment agreement. The clash term was “specific position”. AUT’s position was that specific positions are identified by professional ranks (from lecturer to professor) and the numbers of each role across four particular faculties.
The ERA did not agree and concluded an essential component for identifying specific positions is the employee, being the person who is the current position holder or appointee to a position.
AUT’s assertion would be like the air force using the rank of “captain” to adjust its number of pilots. The number of captains does not tell you what each captain does, be it to fly planes or fix them.
Without tenure, a standard less than this minimum established by the ERA can be used to eliminate academics who have legitimate priorities that do not align with the administrative staff of the day, or are the victims of any other concealed discrimination. The ERA clarification makes it more difficult to inhibit intramural criticism, the right to criticise the actions taken by managers and leaders of the university.
The authoritative review of freedom of speech and academic freedom in Australian universities singles out the importance of academic freedom for this purpose, saying:
It […] reflects the distinctive relationship of academic staff and universities, a relationship not able to be defined by reference to the ordinary law of employer and employee relationships.
The ERA clarification helps to prevent the firing of academics who are teaching, researching or questioning things administrators, funders or governments don’t want them to. But it is a finger in a leaking dyke. Tenure is a tried and tested general solution.
Health of the democracy
We only need to observe the events in the United States to recognise the importance of tenure. This benchmark country has a proud tradition of tenure. Nevertheless state governments are dismantling tenure to impose political control on curriculums. Our liberal democracy is not immune to this.
We need more than tenure-secured academic freedom to enable universities to do the sometimes dreary and at other times risky work of providing societies alternatives to populist, nationalist or autocratic movements. But as the Douglas Dillon chair in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Darrell M. West, wrote, academic freedom is a problem for these movements.
Recognizing the moral authority of independent experts, when despots come to power, one of the first things they do is discredit authoritative institutions who hold leaders accountable and encourage an informed citizenry.
In a system with tenure, a university would have a defined stand-down period preventing reappointment to vacated positions. For example, if an academic program and associated tenured staff that teach it were eliminated at the University of Arkansas for financial reasons, the program could not be reactivated for at least five years. The stand-down inhibits whimsical or agenda-fuelled restructuring as a lazy option to manage staff.
If a similar trade-off were to be applied to how AUT defined specific positions, then no academics could be hired there for five years. It is very different to be prevented from hiring academics than it is to, say, not re-establishing a financially struggling department or program.
Herein lies the true value of tenure. It is greater than a protection of the individual. It protects society from wasteful or ideologically motivated restructuring as an alternative to poor management. Tenure is security of the public trust in our universities.