The ‘untouchables’: Can tenured professors be fired for inflammatory comments?

In light of recent discussions around racial justice and equity, many students are calling on the school to reprimand professors and other faculty members who participate in and instigate harmful and inflammatory discussions around race and racial justice. 

With these calls to action, many are also questioning whether professors who feel emboldened to speak against racial justice are doing so under the protection of their tenure. 

Tenure is the indefinite academic appointment of a faculty member, meaning that tenured professors can only be terminated under extraordinary circumstances, such as financial exigency or program discontinuation. 

In other words, tenure is job security. So tenured professors, also known as permanent faculty, are protected under academic freedom and do not need to worry about losing their jobs unless they break the law or other institutional policies. 

This allows them to engage in academia without the fear of negative consequences, based on their ideologies or beliefs, research, political affiliation, and so on.

But what kind of ideologies are protected under academic freedom? Is there a line, and what happens when a tenured professor crosses it?

As of fall 2019, Laurier has 544 full-time faculty members, 383 part time faculty members, 1114 full-time staff members and 122 part time staff members. 

This means that a large proportion of those who work at Laurier are not tenured, with most being contract staff. 

These numbers are similar to other Canadian universities. Between 1981 and 2007, the number of professors earning the distinction of tenure has dropped, while the number of professors being hired has risen, according to Statistics Canada

Graham Mitchell, Wilfrid Laurier University’s spokesperson, outlined the school’s policies around tenure and employment in a statement. 

“All employees at Laurier are subject to the relevant employment legislation, collective agreements and Laurier policies. Faculty who are WLUFA members are subject to the Full-time Faculty and Professional Librarians Collective Agreement, which governs the terms and conditions of their employment. This collective agreement outlines the processes for resolving workplace issues, including situations involving discipline or termination,” read the statement.

Most notably, Article 7.4 of the Collective Agreement for full-time faculty states the guidelines around academic freedom. 

According to the Article, “academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual … Academic freedom does not confer legal immunity, nor does it diminish the obligations of Members to meet their duties and responsibilities.”

“Members have a duty to exercise that freedom in a manner consistent with the academic obligations of teachers and scholars, and librarians.” 

If the school determines that a professor has violated the agreement, Article 26 outlines the disciplinary measures that the school is able to take, reflective of the seriousness of the violations.

These disciplinary measures include: a letter of warning or reprimand, suspension with pay, suspension without pay, or dismissal for just cause. 

These policies extend to other Canadian universities as well, as academic freedom is protected in all major institutions.

Rebecca Elming, the University of Waterloo’s spokesperson outlined the school’s policy for academic freedom.

“The University of Waterloo’s Policy 33 speaks to ethical behaviour for all faculty, staff, and students at Waterloo, and Policy 77 governs the professional conduct expected from faculty members.”

“In addition to these policies, the University has a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo which describes causes for dismissal and the disciplinary process applicable to its members.”

“All faculty members’ academic freedom is protected under the MOA, Policy 33 and Policy 77.”

It’s clear that in these major institutions, a tenured professor will be disciplined or terminated accordingly if it is deemed that they have reasonable grounds for action, or just cause. 

If a professor spews hateful, discriminatory, or prejudiced rhetorics, would that be deemed reasonable grounds for action, or will they be protected under academic freedom? 

Professors at Laurier are also responsible for creating an environment that is free of harassment and discrimination, as stated in Article 25. This does not include the “matters of fair and free expression,” outlined in Article 7. 

Similarly, University of Waterloo’s Policy 33 states that, “The University has a responsibility to provide an environment free from harassment and discrimination, and accordingly must deal effectively, quickly and fairly with any situation involving claims of harassment or discrimination that come to its attention.” 

It also states that, “members of the University community have the right to lodge complaints and to participate in proceedings without reprisal or threat of reprisal for so doing.” 

Outside of university, it is not uncommon to see people be fired or dismissed for their inflammatory political opinions. 

Inside of university though, academic freedom is valued and protects professors from being fired for their views — within limits, of course. 

Ultimately, the understanding that tenured professors can’t be fired is a misconception. In reality, tenured professors can and do get fired. Tenure just provides a complicated process for firing, as the school must determine whether they have reasonable grounds for action.

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