“The philosopher strives to find the liberating word, that is, the word that finally permits us to grasp what up to now has intangibly weighed down upon our consciousness…” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
So last week, a former student of mine who read the previous two articles sent me her unadorned views on them. In a nutshell, she thought they were politically correct, measured, and an exercise in self-restraint. And she would be correct. And she wanted me to be explicit especially with regard to the purpose of universities as an institution which is supposed to promote free thinking.
Secondly, she felt that greater attention ought to be paid to the student-lecturer relationship and the opinions of students; after all, are they also not entitled to academic freedom of sorts? So she wrote, “I know everyone thinks the students don’t pay attention; but we know, we know which lecturers actually care about us and who pretends to or just does it for praise and admiration.” Even more telling was her conclusion about the character of the University which she labelled as a “cut-throat environment” where it is difficult for a “good person to thrive as opposed to someone just looking to rise to the top”. Nonetheless, I will continue in the same vein I began and if it is self-restrained, then I will have to accept that as a compliment.
But in deference to a quality student, what I will say about the student-teacher relationship is that in this environment, there is greater pressure and frustration for academic staff. Students appear to be permanently wired and plugged into their phones or the internet on laptops because many lack the discipline to focus. They cannot concentrate for long and as one young woman said, “Young people do not like to read; we watch short videos, nothing lengthy.” So how do you impart knowledge in this climate of what Thomas H. Eriksen calls the “tyranny of the moment”? Obviously, there are unintended consequences of the communication revolution, one being the restlessness of students in the class room, which is inimical to learning. The semester has just begun and already I have had to confiscate cell phones. So too, is the mollification of the students through the endless clubs, sports, and so on.
Equally important to acknowledge is the view held by many students that they must confront opinionated academics who are intolerant of informed opinion and who will not permit any dissenting view. I have heard this constantly from students and to them I say – well, ensure that your writing is based on solid research and rational thinking. Recognize your lecturer’s proclivities and become the best chameleon that you can for the purpose of an exam. I also acknowledge the long-held view that we use the lecture theatres as our “bully pulpit but refuse to utter words on the national stage” as one student wrote.
I began this journey because I simply wanted to defend a colleague who felt a little besieged and overwhelmed. But what began as a simple and innocent exercise simply mushroomed and snowballed. I guess it is because for so long, these issues have been simmering and there is the domino effect and what was revealed through arduous research. In this third part of my exploration of academic freedom, I will pursue the issue of tenure.
Bring it on!
As I read, I became aware of the magnitude of non-performance factors in the determination of promotion, tenure and dismissal, or should I say non-renewal. Indeed, globally, there is covert discrimination in academic institutions that too often impacts promotion and retention. Far too often perhaps, (even once is bad), University officials, whether Heads of Departments, Deans, Rectors, Directors, Registrars, Provost and others are persuaded by factors (friendships, family ties, attractiveness, nationality, relationships, loyalty, timidity, militancy, political ties, class, colour, ethnicity), which have little to do with the Holy Grail of academic life – publication, public service and teaching.
In North American Universities for instance, there is documented evidence of “academic bullying” which essentially refers to the systematic long-term interpersonal aggressive behaviour (sometimes couched in a veneer of professionalism) manifested in both covert and overt forms against faculty who are unable to defend themselves. This is formidable given that those who are being bullied by persons in authority in academic departments and administration, often find it difficult to defend or retaliate against them since such officials must ultimately write letters of recommendation for staff members. The perception of power unfortunately confuses and corrupts those who strive for power for its sake only. So there is much posturing, but there is a palatable disconnect between words and behaviour.
Tenure is the most desirable goal for academics. After that, some believe they can rest, whilst others simply see it as a stepping stone towards future promotion. But at least tenure provides some ease to the tension and uncertainties. And tenure, or the lack thereof, has resulted in tremendous tension, hatred and animosity, jealousy and envy, harassment, lawsuits, gossip and innuendo, disillusionment and pain.
I am cognizant of the responsibility of the university to ensure that it is abreast of national law in so far as employees are concerned. In Barbados, the Employment Rights Act, for instance, speaks directly to the issue of dismissal. So too, the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Act 2017 has implications for relations in academic institutions.
Tenure: The Apparent Gold of Academia
In Caribbean universities the issue of tenure is quite nebulous and murky as I see it. In the United States, it is clear. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure addresses the connection between tenure and the mission of the university:
“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research… Tenure is a means to [these] ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”
I get it! Tenure is important in achieving a university‘s mission but should tenure be considered an “unassailable guarantee of lifetime employment” or ought there to be post tenure review (PTR)? Apparently research conducted into tenure and research output reveals that it is associated with a steady decline in research production. Unfortunately, research has also shown that PTR especially targets public intellectuals who apparently make pronouncements that neither the public nor the academy appreciate.
Thus, it can be interpreted as a strategy designed to curtail academic freedom. PTR can result in just cause dismissal and has so resulted in rare cases in the United States. So of course it is regarded with suspicion, fear and opposition especially when those who insist upon its use have never been so evaluated and have routinely shown condescension to academics. Equally important is the fact that post tenure review may simply be a ruse designed to curtail academic freedom of speech. But this must be balanced against the fact that tenure has sometimes been used as a means of proceeding quietly and unproductively into retirement.
But we have quintessential academics located in every single faculty at the Cave Hill Campus and throughout the UWI system.
Calling a spade a spade: grudge holders everywhere
Participating in shared governance at a University can be a dangerous thing for academics, especially when it concerns issues of tenure, extension of contracts and promotion. Discussions at Faculty sub-committee level are sensitive and so the expectation is that these discussions remain private and confidential. Alas no! Even before you exit a meeting, the substantive issues have become a faculty wide discussion and academics on these committees are vilified and blamed for the decisions pertaining to non-renewal, tenure or should I say non-tenure, and reduction of contracts. Individuals are then targeted.
So some academics have been tarred and chased off committees in order to preserve their sanity. As a now retired Professor of Economics said to me, “Cynthia, be careful what you say in these meetings, because you will become a target. I have been blamed so many times for my outspokenness on these matters where privacy is anticipated!” There are so many daggers in my back that I can probably set a dinner table with some very dangerous weapons.
So routinely, academic freedom is linked to issues of promotion and tenure designed to ensure that faculty do not languish, contributing little or nothing to research and publication and the community, whether local, regional or global. Yet, there are academics who decry their institution for their own failings to do what should come quite naturally for every academic, and if not naturally, then in the face of mentoring and urging to attend conferences, write papers, have a public presence, anything. When crunch time comes, it is everybody’s fault but theirs.
Teaching/instruction which is quite critical is simply not sufficient. Research, publication and public service are the holy grail of academic life and existence. In all universities, there are mandatory performance reviews that impose requirements for scholarly production. So that academic freedom ought not to be interpreted as the right to avoid stated and unstated but assumed responsibilities. Academic freedom simply does not also imply the freedom to do little or nothing.
Next week, the business model, EBM and academic freedom, the increasing disconnect between academics and administrators and implications for institutions of higher learning.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)