So says Alex Hope in the Guardian. Among other things, he writes:
“You don’t necessary need to be an academic employed at an academic institution to contribute to the academy. Academics need to reflect these changes in their practice. We need to become more agile both in terms of our employment and our modes of communication. Academic tenure is the past – flexibility is the future.”
Steve Saideman disagrees:
“Universities depend on the full time profs to run programs, provide a variety of services, engage in research, and, oh, yeah, bring in research money.”
“There is also something else–that universities are communities of scholars, not just buildings and administrators. The pursuit of knowledge (yeah that is mighty high falutin) is a social endeavor, and universities, by bringing together students, professors, post-docs and other folks, facilitate the processes by which we can learn and argue and develop. Yes, some scholars can work in isolation, but the social environment of universities is incredibly important for most work.”
On the one hand, I agree with Alex Hope. Flexibility is an important asset in a time when rapid change is needed. And if there is one thing I’ve learned in my five years on the job, universities are slow and difficult to change!
So in one sense, adopting a model that relies more heavily on teaching flexibility, for instance, is a good thing. In many ways, the teaching competencies of university departments are fixed by who you hired in the past. Forever. A case in point is in my department where “legal studies” has become one of our most popular programs. The problem is: none of our full time faculty members does research in this area and few of us are really qualified to teach an “intro to law” course, for instance. The easy answer is to hire a new tenure-stream professor in Canadian judicial politics but most universities are ratcheting back new hires and refusing, sometimes, to even replace retirees.
So I’m sympathetic towards calls for flexibility; I can understand why five- or ten-year renewable contracts would be attractive and why administrators are encouraging greater use of MOOCs and online courses (or at least blended learning courses).
I’m also not convinced by Saideman’s point that universities are important for knowledge production because they are sites of collaboration and interaction. We work in an age of advanced communications that can facilitate meaningful and productive relationships irrespective of geography. Gary Wilson at UNBC, for instance, and I have published two journal articles (one in CJPS and one in Regional and Federal Studies), won a SSHRC Insight Grant, and are presenting a paper at the annual state of the federation conference, yet we’ve never met in person. Ever (Does Gary even exist?!?).
If anything, I think the strongest reason for the status quo is the “research funding” rationale. But of course, from a university administrator’s perspective, the five- to ten-year contract model still makes more sense then the current tenure model. If I was a senior administrator, then I would give automatic renewal to those who constantly won research grants. Those who didn’t: see yah!
Don’t get me wrong. I like the current system. Tenure affords me the freedom to pursue whatever research I want without having to worry too much about the “politics” of my work. It’s also nice to have an institutional home with the support that such a home provides (e.g. an office, library, support staff, teaching support services, and the like) but I think there’s merit in findings ways to increase academic flexibility both at the individual and institutional levels.