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Researchers analyze tenure policy across Canada

Study finds similarities, some surprising differences, at Canada’s universities


Tenure – it’s the Holy Grail of academic work, yet there has been relatively little study of tenure and promotion policies at Canada’s universities. A new analysis of such policies by two doctoral candidates at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto helps to address the dearth of data.

The two students, Pam Gravestock and Emily Greenleaf, conclude that while there are many common features with regards to tenure and promotion policies across Canada, there are also some significant and surprising variations. They presented their analysis at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education in Ottawa (part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held earlier this year).

The study grew out of a request from Mount Royal College to OISE professor Glen Jones about two years ago. The Calgary college was in transition to a university (it just achieved university status this September) and as part of that was looking for information on tenure and promotion policies. Dr. Jones forwarded the request to Ms. Gravestock – whose research is in a related area – and she and Ms Greenleaf were engaged by the college to collect the data.

“As we were preparing the information for Mount Royal, we found we were coming across some pretty interesting stuff … [and] we decided to continue and to expand the study a little bit further,” said Ms. Gravestock.

The students looked at 44 institutions, including all degree-granting institutions except specialized institutions, federated colleges and those that were in collective bargaining. They collected the data primarily from publicly available documents on university websites. They found little published research in this area, apart from the occasional informal survey.

“We consistently found across the institutions that faculty were being evaluated for tenure and promotion on three primary areas: teaching, research and service, with the emphasis on teaching and research,” said Ms. Gravestock.

This was not surprising, but what was interesting was the weighting given to those categories, she added. At roughly two-thirds of the institutions, there was an expectation that faculty would reach a certain standard for both teaching and research, whereas in the other third faculty were allowed to show a greater strength in one or the other.

The next issue they examined was time to tenure and the process for achieving it. At 60 percent of institutions, faculty had to apply for tenure during their fifth year, while at most of the remainder (28 percent) they could apply in their sixth. “That, we thought, was an important variation, given the already compressed timelines for tenure and the difference that an additional year could potentially make,” said Ms. Greenleaf.

Another slight variation: 57 percent of institutions allow faculty to reapply for a tenure evaluation. But at roughly half of these institutions, this option is available only to faculty who had applied early; at the other half this option is available to all.

As for the link between tenure and promotion, 45 percent of institutions do not specify any connection, while at 39 percent of institutions tenure automatically leads to promotion to associate professor. At the remaining 16 percent, these are parallel but separate processes.

In terms of major differences, what most stood out was the “tremendous variation” in the language used to define academic work, said Ms. Gravestock. At their own institution, U of T, faculty must show “competence” in either teaching or research and “excellence” in the other. But that wording was uncommon. Other institutions simply required “effectiveness” or “evidence of performance” in teaching and research, among other qualifiers.

This was surprising, added Ms. Greenleaf, considering the commonality in the rest of the policies. “The processes are very similar, but the language used [to define academic work] is almost entirely different from institution to institution.”

Another surprising finding, given that education is a provincial matter, was the lack of a pattern among institutions by province. Nor was there a pattern by institutional type. For example, major research institutions didn’t necessarily place a greater emphasis on research over teaching, nor did primarily undergraduate institutions favour teaching over research.

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