Tenure, and the Bizarre Case of the University of Saskatchewan

On May 14th, it hit the news that the University of Saskatchewan had done the unthinkable: they had fired a tenured professor for the crime of ‘having an opinion’. It’s worth noting here that the opinion wasn’t racist, mysogynist, called for the armed overthrow of the Canadian government, declared that the Moon People were our new overlords, or anything that could reasonably be considered ‘extreme’. Not in the slightest. Dr. Robert Buckingham, then executive director of the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Health, was fired for issuing a letter in which “he explained his issues with TransformUS, a restructuring plan at the university, and detailed efforts by the administration to ensure that senior leaders toe the institution’s line.”

Fortunately, a mere 7 days later, this was reported as being resolved, with the president of the University being fired instead, and the Dr. Buckingham having his tenure reinstated. Note that, according to the CBC article of May 21st, he had not been reinstated as the executive director of their School of Public Health.

While this may seem shocking to some, to those paying attention to what’s happening in the education systems world-wide this is merely an inevitability, and it’s not the end of the road by any means. This is merely the next step in the corporatisation of the University, that is that (world-wide) Universities are being turned into corporate entities with duties primarily to shareholders, not the general public.

What am I talking about? There was a time that anyone working in a teaching capacity at a University could reasonably expect a decent wage. Granted, that wage may have depended upon the amount of students who actually attended your class, but at least in this respect the fate of the university was tied (albeit loosely) to the fate of the professors who worked there. Over time, mainly since the 1950s, endowments have increased dramatically in real value, while at the same time Universities have required higher and higher tuition fees.

How much higher? In the US, the cost of going to University in Iowa has (in today’s inflation adjusted money) increased by 1.4% every year from 1940 until the year 2000. 1.4% is nothing, I hear ye say: this indicates your unfamiliarity with the demon that is ‘compound interest’. For a semester of tuition that cost $1000 (of today’s dollars) in 1940, you’d have to pay $2,300 for that same tuition now, yet what does that money buy? More administrators, fewer professors, and less teaching. “Recent data from 2010 to 2011 have shown that tuition and fees rose by 4.5% at private colleges and more than 8% at public institutions. Not only do these numbers mean that the sticker price of higher education is far outpacing inflation rate and affordability, but it also means that tuition has grown almost 500% since 1986.” While things certainly aren’t quite that bad here in Canada, the cost of tuition is increasing fairly rapidly all the same.

In addition to increased tuition fees, Universities receive grants from governmental agencies to do research, investment from corporations to do research, and solicit funds from people who have graduated. All in all, ‘the University’ is an amazing corporate model for sucking in money from a variety of sources, and making sure to return that money to a very small number of beneficiaries. While some tenured professors may earn over $100,000 a year, that kind of salary is becoming more and more rare. As tenure-track positions are being reduced (i.e. not offered), the role of the ‘adjunct professor’ is on the rise: this is someone who is paid to teach one or two courses in a semester, and is paid merely for those courses. They are a temporary worker, with no more job security than any other kind of temp one might find on a building site, or working for a few days in the administration department of a corporation. The pay for these adjuncts is significantly lower than for the tenured professors: about $2000-3000 per course, per semester. Given three semesters a year, teaching three courses each semester, that would amount to (at best) $27,000 per year. A barely adequate salary for a single person living frugally, completely ignoring that such a person would be required to have a PhD, which entails 7 to 10 years in University (and the associated debt which would easily exceed $100,000). In the face of the massive amount of money that Universities are drawing in, this salary is entirely indefensible, except under the guise of ‘we must return profits to our shareholders’. This unethical directive has been used to sidestep all manner of unethical practices from corporate bodies for decades, and is increasingly being used in the sphere of education.

Turning back to Dr. Buckingham, this can all be tied in together. The TransformUS policy is designed to cut costs in the university, which is to say: to maximise profitability. This program can be superficially viewed, with very few details but lots of corporate-speak, at the University of Saskatchewan website. The language of this policy is telling about the priorities of the upper management of this corporation:Academic programs constitute the real drivers of cost for the entire enterprise, academic and non-academic.

  1. Academic programs constitute the real drivers of cost for the entire enterprise, academic and non-academic.
  2. Academic programs have been permitted to grow, and … calcify on the institutional body without critical regard to their relative worth.

Notice here that the policy clearly names these as assumptions that they are working from: there is no indication whether or not these assumptions are actually true. Moreover, as an institute dedicated to education, shouldn’t it be the case that academic programs constitute the real drivers of cost? Wouldn’t that indicate that the money is being spent on the right things?

Not in a corporate world, where the priorities are on identifying profit-centres, and returning profit to the investors: in that world, all non-profit-generating-costs must be eliminated.

It would seem to me that Dr. Buckingham was only partially reinstated because of the backlash from the public that the University of Saskatchewan received, merely because President Busch-Vishniac had misjudged the public sphere with regards to the corporatisation of the University. I can only hope that with the firing of President Busch-Vishniac, this whole plan to burn the University to the ground in order to profiteer (like some deranged Chicago School Economist) is put on hold and reevaluated promptly.

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