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Rank, tenure and why it matters to students

As the Faculty and Staff Association (FSA) begin their bargaining process with university administration, ideas of how to implement rank and tenure at our institution are at the forefront of many instructors’ minds. However, it’s important for students to pay attention as well.

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By Karen Aney (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 14, 2012

Rank and tenure has long been a focus of discussion at our university.

As the Faculty and Staff Association (FSA) begin their bargaining process with university administration, ideas of how to implement such a system at our institution are at the forefront of many instructors’ minds. However, it’s important for students to pay attention as well.

Tenure is a by-product of rank in that it is often awarded with the title of professor (as opposed to assistant or associate professor). This means, essentially, that the professor has job security – excepting extraneous circumstances, they will not be let go.

In the Canadian university system, rank and tenure are typically directly related. Because our college and university systems are distinct, rank is even more critical. Colleges do not refer to their instructors as professors, and universities do. Generally, those referred to as professor have obtained a doctorate of some sort.

Vicki Grieve, chief negotiator for the FSA, explained that implementing a system of rank could elevate the status of our institution.

“Some of our faculty who have come from big universities, they lack a kind of cache if they go to conferences or to present papers. It seems like the rank of instructor might hold them back, certainly in terms of prestige,” she notes.

Elevated prestige makes our institution more attractive to potential instructors (or professors). This means the introduction of rank at UFV could result in an elevated calibre of instruction. It could also result in our degrees holding more weight post-graduation.

Virginia Cooke, FSA president, worries that the lack of rank at our institution impedes the ability of her students to achieve entrance to graduate schools.

“Every single reference letter and form I write . . . will ask me what my rank is, and I will have to explain on every single one of them that we don’t have a rank here,” she says. “I worry when I’m writing references for students without that title.”

Given Cooke’s experience at our institution, including time as a dean, this idea—that her recommendation could hold less influence than references from a professor—is indicative of how crucial the issue of rank truly is to students.

Another direct correlation is related to tenure. There are ongoing discussions in the academic world of whether tenure is beneficial to students or not. It creates potential for professors to decline in the classroom yet continue teaching. This, in conjunction with the consistently full classes at our institution, could create even more fierce competition to be in favoured classrooms.

However, achieving tenure does give professors the pleasure of academic freedom. Being (mostly) impervious to institution backlash allows professors to research and publish without catering to their employers. It allows for an environment of academic integrity.

In this same vein, it creates opportunities for students. Grieve elaborated on this, stating that many instructors feel a system of rank and tenure will attract more research grants. “[These grants] will provide students with research opportunities,” she said. Not only are these generally paid positions, but working in the capacity of a research assistant is sometimes a critical asset when applying for graduate school and adds depth to any professional working resume.

The FSA has documents on their website regarding this discussion dating back as early as 2009. The most recent of these, from May of this year, lists priorities in the “consideration of ranking processes and tenure systems; . . . the primary importance of teaching; the value of research and its relationship to teaching; the diversity of faculty research and scholarship; the significance and wide range of service as measures of excellence.”

Given current contract negotiations, Grieves and Cooke were unable to discuss specific aspects of what the faculty will be requesting of the administration. These priorities, though, suggest that the implementation of rank will be a positive shift for the student body.

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