Attacks on tenure and why they are wrongheaded

See the following link and then read the response below

Marc Spooner

Yesterday at 12:14am

This article really got my goat!

Here’s my reply:

RE: It’s time to reconsider the usefulness of tenure, by Phil Octetes (In My Opinion, University Affairs, Dec 1, 2015)

The anonymously authored piece by “Phil Octetes” certainly reads like a fictional Greek play in that it’s filled with fantastical, unsupported claims, mischaracterizations, and just plain falsehoods. I am dismayed that University Affairs would choose to publish such inflammatory drivel, but to do so at the end of term, when we, hard working academics, are at some of our busiest with marking and grant applications is just cruel.

Where to begin?

First, Octetes states: “we find increasingly that tenure is being used to ensure continued employment, despite falling research and teaching output….” Where is the evidence for such a claim? Contrary to what some, including apparently Octetes, believe, tenure does NOT protect professors from dereliction, incompetence, or fraudulence. We, in fact, undergo regularly scheduled and rigorous performance reviews at multiple organisational levels including a first reviewer (typically a department head, or associate dean), a committee of our peers, and ultimately, a dean. We are also reviewed and must provide evidence of competence in categories that include teaching, research, and service.

Second, Octetes misses the fundamental point that tenure goes hand in hand with academic freedom in order to protect scholars who, in the process of carrying out their academic responsibilities, proffer independent and informed public critiques of policies, culture, or society, or who may be carrying out vital, yet unpopular research. Tenure is a cornerstone of curiosity-driven research and scholarly public-engagement.

Third, let’s examine the U.K. Research Assessment Exercise [RAE]. Octetes claims that the RAE led to a “…sorting of the wheat from the chaff in U.K. universities… The result of this internal competition between departments actually increased both the volume and quality of publications.” Where is the evidence for this claim? In fact, RAE audit culture has led to such gross distortions in research output that whole realms of scholarship are devalued or left out of the equation altogether, including “slow”, time-consuming scholarship, books, Indigenous epistemologies, and publicly-engaged, participatory, open and alternative forms of research (Spooner, 2015).

Audit culture has now crept from its initial and rightful area of application, financial verification, to becoming a method or technology of governance that is reshaping almost every aspect of higher education (Shore, 2008). The sociologist Michael Burawoy (2011) has examined how key performance indicators distort university practices and likens their effects to old school Soviet planning, where tractors were too heavy because their outputs were measured by weight, and glass was too thick because targets were in volume. Similarly, our coerced scholarship is turned into mere grist for research production mills, least-publishable units, and a “gamed” academy. Needless to say, we are all harmed as a result of such narrow and misguided applications of these audit procedures, management technologies, and arbitrary key performance indicators.

Fourth, contrary to Octetes’ analogy that “in a number of cases it lead to universities headhunting the best and most productive scholars, just like football (soccer) teams hunt for star players to boost their standing in league tables.” Higher education is not a game and ought never to be treated as one. Sadly, in actuality, league tables and audit culture have lead to such extreme pressure to publish and meet specific research and funding targets that they consume most of a scholar’s time and output and drive some to dangerously high stress levels (due to unattainable continuous improvement demands), burnout, or worse yet, in some extreme cases like that of Stefan Grimm in the UK, to take one’s own life. No, Octetes can keep his disguised and harmful neoliberalist Taylorisms that do not improve, but rather harm, academics, academia, and society.

Last, I’ve procrastinated far too long in crafting this rebuttal from the important tasks at hand like marking, writing, and providing feedback to students, but I could not, in good conscience, let this article go uncontested. Let us waste no more time on this misguided, ill-researched, and inflammatory opinion piece and get on with the consequential scholarship, teaching, action, and critical public engagement our world so desperately needs.

Marc Spooner, Associate Professor,

University of Regina


Burawoy, M. (2011). Redefining the public university: Global and national contexts. In J. Holmwood (Ed.), A manifesto for the public university (pp. 27–41). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Shore, C. (2008). Audit culture and illiberal governance: Universities and the politics of accountability. Anthropological Theory, 8, 278–298. doi:10.1177/1463499608093815

Spooner, M. (2015). The deleterious personal and societal effects of the “audit culture” and a domesticated academy: Another way is possible. International Review of Qualitative Research, 8, 212-228.

About flexosaurus

I am an anthropologist and Associate Professor who loves to play guitar and comment on social injustice in whatever form it may take
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