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In my opinion

What’s missing from current discussions about reimagining our universities

Assumptions that tenure is central to an effective university and that academics must be engaged in both teaching and research are only part of the problem.


It is rapidly becoming a cliché to suggest that the turmoil caused by the current pandemic makes this a good time to reimagine what universities should be doing. Sometimes, this means a call to reimagine the programs we offer and the ways we deliver those programs.  Sometimes, when all is said and done, it just means a plaintive cry to give us more money.  And yet, in the midst of this supposedly teachable moment, some taken-for-granted assumptions central to any exercise about reimagining our universities remain unchallenged.

Two such assumptions stand out: first, the claim that the complete academic must be engaged in both teaching and research, and second, the claim that tenure is central to an effective university.

There are of course many professors who are outstanding teachers and who make important contributions to their discipline. In the end however, there is little, if any, empirical evidence that teaching quality and research excellence are strongly correlated. Moreover, there is one obvious and overarching pattern which suggests that making teaching and research essential expectations for all faculty is fundamentally misconceived: our overwhelming reliance on sessional faculty.

At most Canadian universities, something like 40 to 50 per cent of undergraduate teaching is done by sessional faculty.  Most of the discussion about sessional faculty has emphasized their precarity – and there is no question that they are the very epitome of disposable and poorly-paid labour force. Calls for social justice here are obviously entirely justified. Still, what is generally ignored are the implications of our reliance on sessional faculty for the research/teaching link. After all, even though many sessionals do research, doing research is not part of their job description and they are not compensated for it.

Read also: Enough talk, it is time to take action to help precarious faculty

In the end, our reliance on sessional labour would seem to admit only two possibilities. The first is that half of our undergraduates are being taught by substandard professors (and I know of no one who has or would make that claim); the second is that sessionals are, on average, doing a good job and so that building in a compensated research component into all professorial positions is not necessary for effective teaching.

I know that for some of my colleagues, the solution is simple: just give everybody a tenure-track position. And if torrents of new money were being poured into the university sector, that might be a possibility. But of course, there are no such torrents nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future.

The second implicit claim being ignored has to do with tenure. The stated goal of tenure is usually something like this: tenure provides the sort of job security that allows academics to pursue the truth in their discipline even if that leads to conclusions that are controversial. Since most academics (read: the overwhelming majority) rarely say anything even remotely controversial, what tenure means in practice is a job for life, with regular “career adjustment” salary increments, that is only tenuously tied to achievement. (And yes, Virginia, I am saying that popular critics of tenure outside academia are more right than wrong.) When you put all this together with the fact that when universities do want to get rid of troublesome tenured faculty, they can usually find some excuse, then the rationale for tenure is weak.

To say that tenure is problematic, of course, is not the same thing as arguing against job security. Job security is as important in academia as in the private sector, but in the private sector safeguards for job security can exist without the ironclad “job for life with continuous salary increases” that has become typical among full-time university faculty.

So what does all this mean for our “reimagining universities” moment? There are some obvious conclusions. The first is that we need to confront the fact that making teaching and research central to all professor roles is misguided – and then design our jobs and compensation schemes accordingly.

The second conclusion is that if we’re truly concerned about the exploitation of sessionals, then we must confront the fact that without torrents of new money coming in, lifting sessionals out of the exploited category will have to happen by redistributing internal resources.

One way to redistribute internally, of course, and a perennial favourite of full-time faculty, is to downsize the administrative component at most universities. My personal sense is that reducing the salary mass allocated to top administrators by at least 10 to 15 per cent is eminently reasonable and would do little harm to the university involved. In the end, however, even if that were to happen (ha!), it would not be enough. And so what we’re left with is transferring some of the salary mass associated with full-time faculty to sessional faculty. If we did agree to rethink the “job for life with continuous salary increases” that tenure has become, then such a transfer could certainly be designed so as to leave full-time faculty with reasonable salaries and reasonable job security while also improving the position of sessional faculty.

Again, I know, all this goes against the “just give us LOTS more money” mentality, and it is not in the interest of either administrators or existing full-time faculty.  It is thus, admittedly, a “reimagining” exercise that will likely go nowhere but hey, I suspect that’s true of all these exercises! And so, universities will be left with the status quo, an affluent administrative class, an increasingly affluent full-time faculty class and an increasingly exploited sessional faculty class.

Michael Carroll is a professor of sociology sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University who, over the course of his career at Laurier and elsewhere, has been a chair, dean and faculty association president. 

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  1. Stewart Rood / April 28, 2021 at 10:30

    These problems were somewhat compounded by the elimination of mandatory retirement. This delays turnover of tenured positions and retains faculty at their top salary. Related to this and perhaps influenced by the strong age-dependency of Covid severity, in 2020 the 65-74 age group displayed a greater contraction than university employee age groups from 25 to 64.

  2. Stuart Chambers / April 28, 2021 at 12:16

    Great article and honest to a fault. It is one of the few articles that seriously addresses the exploitive nature of universities and how they poorly pay part-time professors.

  3. Anna Mendoza / May 19, 2021 at 13:19

    Agreed. Two things I plan to do as a tenure-track faculty member at a Top 50 world university (not in Canada, though I am Canadian… it doesn’t matter where you are):
    1. Do cutting edge-research that is also practical for the entirety of my career, and even then I may still not deserve what I get, to be honest, at the expense of others (this is just the best I can offer under the circumstances–110%);
    2. Teach well, with the deepest respect for/learning from teaching faculty peers, who I have already learned a lot from;
    3. Retire at 65 or earlier.
    One thing I would add to what the author said, and I agree with what the author said 100%, and also the previous commentators, is that universities need to SHRINK enrolment, rather than constantly find new markets for it, whether at home or abroad. Just operate on a smaller budget; lay off people at every level who are not doing much that is truly impactful (I do not count sessionals here), so you can offer everyone who remains a more stable job with a reasonable salary. But then, what company ever said, “Yeah, let’s shrink and make our shareholders profit less, even if growth is unsustainable?” Instead they think: “When this place goes bankrupt, let’s parachute away with our large parting bonuses and find new jobs of the same kind through our networks, and leave everyone else who suffered underpaid, overworked and without health benefits for many years without a job.” No different from any other corporation.
    At the same time, unlike in Canada, there ARE universities that CAN afford to pay for lots more tenure-track faculty… here in China. New universities are springing up like daisies, and many of the ones that already existed before, like the top few dozen, are climbing the world ranks at a rapid pace.