Education

The tenure trap

BARRY CAME December 22 1997
Education

The tenure trap

BARRY CAME December 22 1997

The tenure trap

Education

For a school with neither students nor teaching staff, the Technical University of British Columbia has managed to generate an extraordinary level of controversy. The fledgling institution, slated for construction next year in Vancouver’s southeastern suburbs, is at the centre of a bitter dispute between British Columbia’s educational authorities and a growing body of academics, both in Canada and abroad. It has already so alarmed professors that the Canadian Association of University Teachers has advised its 25,000 members to boycott the place. And now, the 45,000 members of the American Association of University Professors are vowing to do the same; similar scholarly organizations in Britain, France, Australia and 15 other countries are offering their support as well. Says CAUT president William Bruneau: “As it is now constituted, Tech B.C. is the kind of institution that threatens us all.”

Academic freedom is the issue that has the international professoriat so agitated. Tech B.C. is an innovation in higher education, a non-traditional institution designed specifically to work closely with industry in turning out job-ready graduates in technology-related fields. Students will be able to access the entire campus, including course

material, the library and student services through the Internet. It is, however, an experiment that has been fashioned in a way that many scholars find fundamentally dangerous. The governing structure is the

principal problem. Under the enabling legislation, enacted last July by the government, the university will function without a traditional academic senate, the body composed largely of faculty and students that normally determines educational direction. Instead, Tech B.C. will be ruled by an all-powerful board of governors, primarily government appointees drawn from business and organized labor. “It’s a violation of everything for which a university is supposed to stand,” argues Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations (CUFA) of B.C. “Educational decisions will no longer be made for strictly educational reasons, free from any economic or financial pressures.”

Exacerbating the situation is some confusion over whether teaching staff will be given tenure. The B.C. legislation is mute on the subject, just as it is with the laws governing other universities. But Education Minister Paul Ramsey has stated that all employment issues rest in the hands of the university’s administrators. “That’s not good

enough,” says Clift. ‘Tenure is absolutely vital. Without it, faculty will live with the threat of losing their jobs if they say something that might offend or their research leads to something that somebody doesn’t like.”

Until the issues of senate, tenure and academic freedom are resolved, Tech B.C. will continue to labor under the blacklist imposed by CUFA/B.C. and CAUT. Both organizations want scholars to “think twice” before accepting employment at the new institution, which plans to start enrolling

students next year, even though the campus in Surrey will not likely be ready until 2000. Vows Bruneau: “They are not going to be able to attract faculty of any calibre until our concerns are recognized.”

For the record, neither the B.C. government nor the administration expresses much worry over the growing boycott. ‘We’ve had no trouble hiring some top-rate people,” says Education Minister Ramsey. Significantly, he points to Tech B.C. president Bernard Sheehan, formerly associate vice-president of computing and communications at the University of British Columbia, and vice-president Tom Calvert, formerly vice-president of research at Simon Fraser University. “The criticism is extremely premature,” argues Sheehan. “We’ve only hired 15 staff, and the board of governors has only had one meeting.”

Ramsey maintains that the battle over academic freedom will be resolved as the university begins operating and scholars realize that cherished principles are not being violated. “The institution was designed to be more flexible than traditional universities,” says the minister, “in order to meet the demand for higher technology workers in the Fraser River Valley, where population is exploding. There is already an acute shortage of postsecondary places for students.” Despite the disclaimers, however, there were clear signals last week that the authorities are growing concerned about the damage that is being inflicted on the infant facility. On Wednesday, Sheehan and Ron Dickson, chairman of Tech B.C.’s interim governing board, met with Bruneau, Clift and CUFA president Tony Sheppard. “I think we made considerable progress towards resolving some of the concerns that

have been expressed about the governance of the university,” Sheehan told Maclean’s. Neither Bruneau nor Clift disagreed with that view. “I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied,” said Clift, “but I’m a lot happier.”

Not content enough to lift the boycott, however. That will remain, at least until the two sides meet again in January. But there is now, at least, the prospect of an end to a nasty scrap that has aggravated the birth pangs of Canada’s newest university. And for some in the country’s academic community, that is a welcome development. “It’s a small school trying to get started,” remarks McGill University principal Bernard Shapiro. “Even if it might not have chosen the safest route to preserving academic freedom, it deserves a chance to succeed.”

BARRY CAME