Academic Freedom and Tenure: Necessary Rights for Irish Academics

Academic freedom is the right of the faculty member to select one’s materials, methods, pedagogy and points of view in teaching one’s discipline. That is to be empowered with a ‘voice’. Academic freedom is an absolute necessity for a democratic society. It pertains to both teaching (freedom of speech) and research (search for truth). These aspects of the academic life are indispensable for the success of the university. Faculty need to be free of the constraints of censorship and interference in the conduct of their duties by the institution or other agents and agencies in the community.

The very essence of the university, for faculty and for students, is freedom to seek the truth. In fact, one might claim that the university is the only institution in our society that has the privilege of devoting itself to truth, beauty, and rationality. This undertaking is not to be taken lightly. The word university literally means ‘the community of scholars’ and institutions of higher education have been created precisely for these reasons.

Let us begin by considering the issue of academic freedom. The very essence of the institution of higher education, whether it is a university or polytechnical unit, for faculty and for students, is freedom to seek the truth. In fact, one might claim that the academy is the only institution in our society that has the privilege of devoting itself to truth, beauty, and rationality. This is quite a privilege and quite a challenge; and it is not to be taken lightly. The university community has been created precisely for these reasons.

Faculty members, after a probationary period have a property right to their position and cannot be removed barring ‘just cause’. Tenure does not guarantee a post for life. When I was first appointed at UCD in 1981 there was one condition in my contract letter for removal-being guilty of ‘gross moral turpitude’. Irish academics had real tenure in those days. I do not know if new conditions for removal of tenured faculty have been introduced. In North Carolina there are I believe five reasons for justly removing a faculty member with tenure: moral turpitude; negligence; inadequate performance, financial exigency; and mental or physical incapacity. I cannot see how the NUIG Plan can work as it would be a definite ‘breach of contract’ if one side unilaterally creates new conditions without the agreement of the faculty member. Tenure really means that one ‘owns their position’ and the right to return to that position year after year after the probationary period. I strongly suggest that the legal position of tenure in Irish law be investigated as prolegomenon to challenging the NUIG Plan.

When an individual cannot enjoy academic freedom because of real threats to continued employment, advancement or career, the educational function of the institution ceases to be realized. While this is simple to say, its import and power cannot be ignored or diminished. Academic freedom is an enormous issue and it must be protected at all cost. But is tenure important to the protection of academic freedom? The answer, clearly, is Yes. Tenure secures a working community of scholars based on accepted academic values and aims, and it guarantees that a person cannot be dismissed from that community without due process and without consideration based on well established objective academic criteria. As it turns out, the truth is not always popular, especially within circles of power and wealth. Remove the system of tenure and we shall witness a ‘Flight of the Dons’. That would be an unanticipated outcome of the same nonsensical market model the current grey philistines are promoting. I ask that faculty resist these plans that would undermine the current academic freedom and tenure system in Ireland.

Dr Jim McKernan
College of Education,
East Carolina University,
Greenville USA 27858

Note: the author was previously the King Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University; Dean and Chair of the Faculty of Education, University of Limerick and College Lecturer in Education, University College Dublin. Email:


3 Responses to “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Necessary Rights for Irish Academics”

  1. The concept of tenure has already been adjudicated upon in part by the Courts when the High Court in Ireland addressed the meaning of the word “tenure” as used in s. 25(6) of the University’s Act, 1997.

    The Court stated that tenure as used in the Act must go further than a mere specification of the terms of employment. A university already has (under subs. (3)) an entitlement to fix the terms and conditions of all employees (including officers). If the obligation to provide for tenure merely meant an obligation to provide for the terms and conditions of employment so far as the length of that employment was concerned, then it would be a redundant obligation as that obligation is already covered by subs. (3). Therefore, the Oireachtas must have used the term “tenure” to mean something more than simply delineating terms and conditions as to the length of employment.

    The statement on tenure in both the NUIG and UCD Croke Park Implementation plans appears to be in open breach of the High Court on this matter when its states that ‘tenure’ is to be consistent with the established corpus of employment law. In this context tenure refers to the duration of the contract.

    It will be interesting to see if the unions that represent academic staff in Irish Universities follow through on this in the courts or just bark with no bite !

  2. […] of UCD and UL, and now of the College of Education in East Carolina University, has recently argued on Ninth Level Ireland – these freedoms must be jealously guarded and zealously protected: Academic Freedom and […]

  3. A chairde

    I assume the “Paul” mentioned above is my good friend Paul Cahill

    It is important to understand that, in its campaign against tenure, the Irish state has chosen to operate in an illegal framework.

    Thus, for example, the statute used on Prof Cahill and deemed illegal has been on the books for 10 years and remains so;

    As the Yanks say; go figure.

    As we say; Dean machnamh air

    The latter has a connotation of “contemplation”

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