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Getting Rid of Tenure Won't Fix Our Post-Secondary Problems

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Last month Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn wrote a critical piece on University teaching. The thrust of his argument was that the system needed a major overhaul. Gwyn argued that professors at Canadian universities don't teach much, are highly paid, and are protected by the outmoded tenure system.

The piece highlights a number of problems with university teaching. Yes, students are graduating with too much debt. Yes, some professors need to improve their teaching (this seems to be a universal problem around the word). Yes, academics must step out of their ivory towers and become more engaged with the public.

Increasing teaching hours, reducing salaries and abolishing tenure are not solutions. Such moves will only create bigger problems.

Professors work a lot more than Gwyn claims. Preliminary findings of an ongoing study being conducted by Boise University concludes:

"Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone. Responsible for a growing number of administrative tasks, they also do research more on their own time than during the traditional work week. The biggest chunk of their time is spent teaching."

Teaching hours are not truly reflective of the time spent educating. According to the American Faculty Association (would not be much different in Canada, if at all), each contact hour requires from 2 to 4 hours of preparation time. This does not include the time updating courses, dealing with teaching assistants, serving as references, serving as examiners and reviewers, etc. Not to count the countless hours reviewing student work.

Reducing salaries will only ensure that faculties attract the second rate, especially in fields where professors can earn significantly higher salaries in the private sector. As it is the "high" salary Gwyn highlights is much lower than what some fresh graduates earn. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, many university faculty members (adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and part-timers earn peanuts). In fact, some positions that do not require any education at all earn much higher salaries.

What does this tell our future generations? Indeed, I have heard many ask why pursue higher studies when some high school graduates can earn more than what PhDs do.

To many the quick fix to our educational crisis is to get rid of tenure and the academic freedom it provides. In a report prepared for the American Bar Association titled "Is Tenure Necessary to Protect Academic Freedom?" noted constitutional scholar and Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, concludes that it would be a serious mistake to abolish tenure because "this will have a detrimental effect on academic freedom." He dismissed alternatives to tenure being floated around as being inadequate to protect academic freedom and inquiry. Unpopular and controversial ideas that must be debated will never see the light of day if we abolish this protection. Like the presumption of innocence, tenure is a necessity even though sometimes it may be abused.

Indeed, I have met a number of professors who are holding back for fear of losing their jobs. They are waiting to get tenure before "coming out."

As a knowledge-based economy Canada depends on pushing the envelope of research. Treating its thinkers well and with the utmost respect should be a no-brainer.