Enough of this five-year tenure nonsense

Management professor Henry Mintzberg weighs in on the subject of tenure.
Henry Mintzberg. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Henry Mintzberg

I received tenure in a most unusual way, at least by today’s standards. I was away from McGill, in my eighth year in the 1970s. The dean called and told me I had received tenure. That’s nice, I thought.

Had I been in the system today, having wasted my early years writing a book, the success of which came after the clock would have run out, I would not likely have received tenure. The credit for my 15 books and many articles that followed would have gone to some other university, had I been lucky enough to find one as supportive as McGill after having been refused tenure here.

Watching my colleagues struggle for tenure over more recent years, I cannot imagine a system more anti-ethical to scholarship. They race like mad to get something into print – it’s the journals that count (‘A’ journals of course, so forget the ones specialized in a field), not the articles, and books are taboo (they take too long) – instead of taking advantage of the sensible place that a decent university can be.

Worse still is the process. I submitted not a word back then: they evaluated my record. (They had my publication list and course evaluations.) Recently a colleague showed me the 100-page file she put together, to prove herself in every possible way. Why must we make a farce out of such an important process? We can get the data we need.

And the clock. It is nonsense. Something like eight years would make a lot more sense, with a careful review at the end of three years to ensure that there is ongoing and solid research activity as well as decent teaching and acceptable administrative contributions. Eight years would give time for the chips of scholarship to fall naturally.

I thought we are in an academic setting in order to think for ourselves. So why do we follow other universities in this mindlessness? Getting rid of the five-year tenure clock and eliminating self-congratulatory dossiers would improve the level of scholarship at McGill by attracting more thoughtful scholars and enabling them to engage in truer scholarship. It would also send a signal that McGill is not a university like the others.

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies in the Desautels Faculty of Management.