Feb 21, 2011

Controversy over Tenure, Academic Freedom in UCD

Snow in UCD last week

Rónán Burtenshaw

Deputy News Editor

A dispute has broken out in University College Dublin over references in that college’s Croke Park Agreement ‘Implementation Plan’ to academic freedom and tenure. Attempts to define and limit the scope of the two concepts have drawn a backlash from the academic community.


As part of the Croke Park Agreement, a public service agreement whereby unions consented to various cost-saving and restructuring measures to avoid pay-cuts and redundancies for their workers, each university must submit an ‘Implementation Plan’ to the government. This plan, according to Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Mary Hanafin on January 25th, 2011, is to outline the ways “Civil and Public Service management [are] working with their staff to increase efficiency and reduce costs across the public sector.”

The controversy surrounding Trinity College’s ‘Implementation Plan was covered by this paper in its last issue. The ramifications, however, of the disagreements regarding the UCD plan are likely to be much more fundamental.
While academic freedom and tenure were never ruled out as topics for discussion explicitly in relation to cost-reducing or restructuring measures relating to the Agreement, they had yet to be referenced in ‘Implementation Plans’. One of the reasons for this is their existence in a somewhat ill-defined grey area. While the recent endorsement of a document on the subject by Trinity College’s Academic Council has provided some framework here, the status of academic freedom and tenure in UCD remain ambiguous. Aside from the contracts of academics, which state that employment will last until 65 years of age, tenure has not been defined and its status in law is also largely untested.

Against this backdrop the reference in the ‘Implementation Plan’, each of which are drawn up and submitted by respective College senior management exclusively, came as somewhat of a surprise to the college staff. On tenure, the document’s definition was quite clear, “tenure is to be consistent with the established corpus of employment law. In this context tenure refers to the duration of the contract.” Limiting of tenure to employment law would be significant, as it stands opposed to the notion that the concept of tenure for academics is in some way distinct from other employment statuses.

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Academic freedom was also discussed in the section of the plan that dealt with “a comprehensive review of academic employment contracts”. This freedom was defined as that which was laid out in section fourteen of the Universities Act, 1997 – “A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.” However, this freedom is to be exercised “within the context of the framework of obligations set out in the contract”.

The tying of academic freedom to contractual obligations, particularly when those obligations are under employment law and not the concept of academic tenure, is also seen as significant by university staff. The definition of the purpose of tenure by the American Association of University Professors as a “guarantee for academic freedom” (1957) is widely accepted by academic labour theorists. “Tenure,” the AAUP say, “is important to protect those in academe and fields of intellectual study from undue penalty for their theories or the results of their research.”

In response to concerns from academic unions and direct contact from academics expressing their disapproval at the ‘Implementation Plan’ document, President of UCD Hugh Brady has sent out a series of three e-mails clarifying the document to staff. The first e-mail simply referenced the impending Public Sector Agreement (PSA) Implementation Plan. In the second e-mail, dated January 28th, Dr. Brady said that he was aware of “the degree of concern surrounding… [The] ‘Implementation Plan’.” He summed up his conversations with concerned academics thus: “many academic staff members concluded from the UCD document that the implementation plan would limit academic freedom, alter the notion of tenure and change/diminish employment rights because the terms ‘academic freedom’ and ‘tenure’ were listed in the same context as such issues as attendance, duties, flexibility and cooperation, annual leave, dismissal/discipline and ‘Devlin time’.”

Dr. Brady continued that this was “not the intention”. He said that the University fully supported the definition of academic freedom outlined in the 1997 Universities Act and that references to academic freedom and tenure were in the document to underscore that “any proposed changes in work practices under the [Implementation Plan] must be consistent with this (Irish and European) legislation.” He concluded the second e-mail by acknowledging that “communication… could undoubtedly have been handled better”.

By the third e-mail, from February 14th, Dr. Brady had “asked Academic Council to develop a UCD policy statement on Academic Freedom”. He promised that such a definition would regard existing legislation and be “reasonable… given the nature of academic work and the value system which accompanies it.” On the issue of tenure he said that he was “asking the University Committee on Academic Appointments, Tenure and Promotion (UCAATP) to formulate a clear statement on the issue of tenure in the UCD context.”

Dr. Brady also promised to have “each College Principal and Vice-President work with their Heads of School and Heads of Unit respectively to involve all staff in considering the main provisions of the PSA”. UCD would establish a “Steering Committee”, which he would chair, “to guide the process and to collate and consider the various recommendations for presentation” to appropriate bodies. Dr. Brady also promised that negotiations with academic unions would continue at a local and national level but assured staff that there would be “no dilution of Academic Freedom or Tenure”.
Between the second and third e-mail the Irish Universities Association also issued a statement acknowledging “the focus of the concerns expressed to date is that the provisions of contractual revision represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university.” The body, which consists of the seven heads of Ireland’s universities, including President Brady, believed that this was “emphatically not the case”. They rejected the suggestion that the proposals “casualised” academic employment by diminishing the concept of tenure and said that they were “unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and enquiry”. The statement also indicated that these topics must be open for discussion in relation to the Croke Park Agreement.

In response Mike Jennings, President of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, said that “academic freedom and tenure have nothing to do with the PSA”. He said that his organisation were “adamant” that these issues be kept “completely separate”.

“The Department [of Education and Skills] had said that they were only interested in issues that would save money. In light of this we cannot understand why the Irish Universities Association and UCD authorities have put this on the table. It was only ever going to raise anxieties amongst the academic staff.” Mr. Jennings further suggested that if UCD were looking for a guideline on a definition of academic freedom and tenure they should “pick up the phone” to Trinity, whose recent document on the subject he described as “excellent”. IFUT are not covered by the Croke Park Agreement but are engaged in what he described as a “parallel process to find an arrangement that would mirror it or be its substitute”. The largest union representing academic staff that is covered by the agreement, SIPTU, were unable to reply to a number of requests for comment.

The definition of academic freedom and its protection in the Universities Act of 1997 is also of import for the Croke Park Agreement because that legislation does not cover non-university third-level institutions, such as institutes of technology (ITs). This would mean that the realms of possibility for negotiation over tenure and academic freedom in those institutions span beyond what is currently on the table in universities such as Trinity or UCD.

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