Getting back on (tenure) track

The increased use of contract faculty is a currently widespread problem in North American universities, and King’s is not immune to it. However, with recent changes in leadership here at King’s, there’s hope that change is in the air.

Universities across the continent have been using short-term contract positions – rather than tenure positions – as a way to combat enrolment challenges and financial difficulties.

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, tenure is essential to safeguarding academic freedom. The association also suggests that tenured professors, who have guaranteed salaries, are more likely to carry out their teaching, research, and administrative duties in a supportive environment.

While the numbers of short-term positions at King’s are much smaller than at some other universities in Nova Scotia, King’s does rely on sessional faculty, who are employed on a year-to-year basis, with a total of 3 sessional positions in the humanities.

For academics and students alike, the use of short-term faculty can have negative impacts.

“From a human resources perspective, it’s not sustainable, it’s not an equitable arrangement,” said Dr. Peter O’Brien, the university’s incoming vice president.

King’s President William Lahey agrees. “Often people with sessional appointments are expected to work more, or at least expected to do more teaching,” he says, “which means that they haven’t had the same opportunity as other young faculty to keep up with their research, which puts them potentially at a disadvantage.”

According to the outgoing Vice President Kim Kierans, financial difficulties have been primarily responsible for the reliance on sessionals.

According to the Association of Atlantic Universities, overall enrolment at King’s has dropped in the last four years, from a total of 1,153 full-time undergraduate and graduate students in 2013 to just 914 at the beginning of the 2016 school year. The drop in enrolment and corresponding loss of revenue has compounded the financial difficulties the school faces.

According to Lahey, the school’s deficit this year is $1.6 million dollars, while its total debt is $8 million.  As a result, King’s has not had a new tenure track hire since 2010, showing the way in which the university’s financial status and its hiring practices go hand in hand.

“The ethical question of equity bumps up against the ethical question of the fiscal management of the whole college, and its sustained mission into the future, and that’s where it gets tricky,” said O’Brien.

However, the problem of faculty renewal is also tied to the problem of decreasing enrolment.

“Faculty renewal itself is a key thing we have to do in order to stabilize and increase our enrolment over time,” said Lahey. “It’s not a one-way dynamic between the enrolment situation and the university’s financial position, and the question of whether or not we should be creating tenure track positions. It’s actually a two-way relationship.”  

For this reason, there may be changes coming to King’s current sessional positions.

Lahey claims that he is strongly in favour of faculty renewal.

“When I was a candidate for president, I said it was high on my list, and I have tried to reiterate that since becoming president, including in meetings with faculty, individually, and at the monthly faculty meetings,” he said.

Kierans said she was also “pretty hopeful” that positive changes would soon be made, given the president’s position.

Any changes to the current sessional positions will of course have to be made in close consultation with stakeholders, and with the larger financial stability of the university in mind, according to O’Brien.  

“We really have to focus on the way that faculty renewal takes place, that it to the greatest extent possible deals with the resources we have in the most equitable and sustainable way,” he said.

However, there appears to be support for changes to the sessional positions among both faculty and students, which is being reflected in the administration.

According to Kierans many faculty members have spoken in favour of the introduction of tenure positions to allow for a greater sense of stability in the university’s academic programs.

Student concerns are also being taken into account by administration.

“Students have already made their voices loud and clear on this issue, and did so effectively,” said O’Brien. “The support that they’ve given to faculty in the more precarious positions cannot be ignored.”