Reflections on Tenure in Canada vs Wisconsin

This entry is available at Inside Higher Ed as well.

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In the context of some intense debates about tenure in the University of Wisconsin System, and at UW-Madison, I’ve been acquiring some interesting information and views about tenure and related governance matters in Canada vs Wisconsin. Reflections and data have been kindly provided by Canadian leaders representing faculty and university administrative bodies, both nationally and in select universities.

Why focus on this issue in comparative perspective? First, leading Canadian universities (UBC, Toronto, Waterloo, McGill) have been poaching faculty from UW and could increasingly do so if proposed changes to tenure do not match existing standards/AAUP guidelines. Second, looking at different systems in a comparative way helps you realize what is working well here in WI, but also what might need to be changed, especially if higher education governance becomes more politicized in Wisconsin (as it has been in states like North Carolina).

In the end, it is similar and different in Canadian peer universities vs what we experience in WI. I think the biggest difference is it is more unionized in Canada (for ~80% of the faculty base) and the details re. tenure and layoffs are embedded in collective agreements. This said, some faculty associations at peers – the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, McMaster University, and McGill University – though not officially certified as labour unions, nevertheless have negotiated collective agreements with standard grievance and arbitration procedures. Also, in Canada, the majority of part-time faculty are unionized and staff are unionized. It just goes to show you don’t necessarily need regulations re. tenure embedded in the state statutes (or equivalent) to guarantee strong tenure and shared governance, but, this said, there are other key differences (see below) so how it is all configured matters, a lot…

In the end, no tenured faculty in Canadian universities (including 100% of our peers, the ones poaching our faculty) lose tenure except for engaging in serious forms of unethical behavior (i.e. ‘due cause’). Exigency-related rules do apply but it has not happened, to date, for all sorts of reasons. And if exigency-related layoffs of tenured faculty were to be proposed, it happens at a broader university-scale and the guidelines typically state that a task-force is to be appointed with diverse membership and/or it can only happen in specified ways.

The other big (and important) difference is program-related changes are run through Canadian university senates and the senate is typically made up of senior administrators and elected faculty (the majority), staff, students, etc. See these senate membership lineups, for example:

The UW Board of Regents equivalent in Canadian universities does not need to sign off on program-related changes like the Board of Regents does here. So decisions on closure or redundancy are senate decisions (i.e. the locus of engagement and control is intra-institutional in nature). And in unionized environments, redundancy procedure, after senate has declared program closure, etc., are governed by collective agreement processes. In general the UW Board of Regents here in WI has not been too involved in the fine-grained details of program-related decisions or the funding of centers – they approve what has come up via shared governance pathways. But they could, in the future, become far more active and micro-management in orientation.

On a related note, boards of trustees or equivalent in Canada are university-specific and are more diverse and relatively autonomous from government involvement. You basically have government funded but privately (not-for-profit) autonomous universities. This keeps things less capital P political. The proposed New Badger Partnership (2011) Board of Trustees:

UW-Madison governed by 21-member Board of Trustees, including 11 members appointed by the Governor, with no Senate confirmation. Remaining 10 members represent UW-Madison constituencies (faculty, staff, classified staff, alumni, WARF). All remaining UW campuses governed by the current Board of Regents.

would have brought us half way to to this level of board autonomy vs the current system, though this proposed approach to governance should have also been applied to the UW System more generally and not just UW-Madison.

Thus, what you see is a relatively more autonomous/less politicized university and higher ed governance system in Canada; one where the norms of tenure and academic freedom are sometimes constructed via agreements but often are just part of institutional-organizational culture. The faculty trust the system more, I would say, than they do here now in what could become, if we don’t watch out, a hyper-politicized context. And they do so partly because of the unionized context, the codified agreements, and the fact the premier (governor equivalent) and the ruling party (or parties) tend to be much more hands-off. Increasingly, in Canada, governments through sector-wide bargaining or recalibrating funding formula, or setting tuition fee parameters, are exercising more hands on approaches. Budgets are, of course, political, but they’re just budgets for the most part and they don’t embed policy matters re tenure into budgetary processes in Canada like it has been happening here. It’s a more deliberative context: not perfect, this said, just more deliberative in structure.

The short-term take-away: don’t have unclear terms and procedures in a context where the potential exists for an increasingly more politicized and micro-management-oriented Board of Regents. Maintain tenure standards at UW-Madison and other universities in the UW System that match, in spirit and meaning, what they were before policy changes were injected into the Spring 2015 Wisconsin state budget. Faculty should not lose tenure except for ‘due cause’, as per AAUP guidelines. If program closure occurs after careful consideration by university-specific governance bodies, tenured faculty should have the right to shift to the unit of their choice, or become a professor of the school or college they are affiliated with. It is a clear and straightforward definition of tenure, and academic freedom, that helped make the US university system so well known, globally, for the production of innovative forms of knowledge. Unclear terms and procedures re. tenure has serious potential to destabilize the foundation of the entire system. And Canadian universities, not to mention hundreds of other US universities, will be salivating if this occurs.

The medium-term take-away: think about the potential role of faculty senates in future debates/steps. And think about tenure and shared governance in the context of the overall governance of the UW System (incl. what has been happening, and what should be happening). In my mind we have a legacy-based governance system that does not reflect the new realities of fiscal (tuition as a majority funding stream), economic (a globalizing knowledge economy), academic, and societal contexts. An unraveling of tenure in the next year will be a proxy indicator the entire UW System governance structure needs to be rethought.

We are, arguably, at risk of seeing the convergence of a legacy-based governance system with a more forceful and explicit political agenda – and this is not beneficial for a world-class university, and a world-class multi-campus state university system, in the 21st century.  Anchor tenure, tightly.

Kris Olds

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