Hiring tenure-track professors the way to go

The Tribune commends McGill’s commitment to increasing its number of tenure-track staff as part of its academic renewal program. It is a welcome shift from a North American trend of reducing tenure-track professors in favour of course lecturers hired on short-term contracts. Confusion in the campus press, stemming in part from the ambiguous and non-committal language of the McGill budget, had led many to believe that McGill was also reducing its tenure-track hires for the foreseeable future. However, so far as we can tell from the budget, and through clarification by campus administrators, this is not the case.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of tenure, a status that grants the professors who earn it guaranteed employment for life barring just cause for dismissal. For one thing, this is an important means of attracting the best teachers and researchers to McGill. Tenure offers job security and, usually, higher pay. This is significant for professors raising families, especially when hiring the best often means asking people to relocate across municipal, provincial, and sometimes national borders. This administration has argued for high administrative salaries in order to compete for the best in that field; surely the financial concerns of the teaching staff, who actually interact with students, are crucial too.

Tenure is also important for more qualitative reasons. It ensures continuity, allowing students to build relationships with professors over the course of their academic career. It is also a crucial guarantor of academic freedom, keeping professors who pursue controversial or unfashionable research safe from dismissal on such grounds. Of course, tenure can be abused, as when professors use it to protect themselves from suffering the consequences of laziness. Yet academia is, at least in theory, supposed to be a higher calling. PhD students and non tenure-track scholars often face pressure to produce marketable material. A mechanism ensuring a more pure pursuit of knowledge is something we feel is worth defending. That the university has chosen to do so is something we applaud.

Yet concerns remain. Despite a promise to increase salaries for some staff, McGill’s budget promises to cut expenses as bought-out tenure-track professors will be swapped with “replacements … hired at a lower salary and benefit costs (pension contributions) will likely be lower.” As living costs rise, McGill is pushing academic salaries down. This hardly seems like the way to attract the best professors, who after 10 years or more of post-secondary education are, love of the trade notwithstanding, probably looking for an income on which to build a comfortable life.

While the Tribune is encouraged by clarifications from McGill administrators, it is concerned that vague and evasive wording in the budget has created such confusion. The McGill Daily’s claim that academic renewal is “essentially institutionalizing professor turnover,” is dramatic, but not entirely inaccurate. The budget aims to increase the absolute number of tenure-track professors to 1,636 by 2016. After that, it calls for a “stabilisation” of this number, even as it asks faculties to “stabilise or increase (where capacity exists) undergraduate enrolment, and significantly grow research graduate enrolment in the short to medium term.” The only ways of reconciling the goals of stabilised tenure-track staff and increased enrolment are by increasing class sizes—asking staff to work more for their reduced wage—or by decreasing the proportional number of tenure-track professors as contract lecturers or graduate students are hired to handle the boom of students. Both of these options threaten the quality of education at McGill. The administration must be clearer regarding how long it intends to maintain its target level of tenure-track positions, and needs to adapt to changing demographic situations.

There are many elements of the McGill budget worth applauding, but the Tribune has reservations about certain ambiguities as well as about the pay reductions that the budget outlines all too clearly. McGill’s budget deficit is a real concern. But as an academic institution it is at least supposed to have ideals above corporate efficiency. So long as McGill administration’s chief goal is fostering the best possible academic environment, and so long as its actions are consistent with that aim, it will be pursuing a goal the Tribune can endorse.

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