In May of this year, Assistant Professor Shanon Fitzpatrick of McGill’s Department of History was denied tenure by the administration. This move was highly unusual—Associate Vice-Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) Angela Campbell said in a presentation to student leaders earlier in the year that candidates who are endorsed by their departments for tenure, as Professor Fitzpatrick was, seldom do not receive it. The administration has not been forthcoming on the reasons behind their decision; when questioned by incoming History Students’ Association President Dalton Liggett, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi cited links to the tenure regulations and stated that students could “rest assured” that they are being followed. Given the absence of a reason for Professor Fitzpatrick’s tenure denial, students are left to reckon with two possibilities: First, that the university does not value her tremendous skill and service record, and second, that Professor Fitzpatrick’s outspokenness about student rights was likely a major factor in the rejection.
The competition for seats in Professor Fitzpatrick’s classes is always fierce, and for good reason: There are few professors who inspire the same engagement and enthusiasm in their students as she does. Undergraduate history students voted to present her with the Robert Vogel Award, which is given annually to a professor in the Department of History who has shown exemplary care for and mentorship to students, in 2019. For many students who have taken Professor Fitzpatrick’s introductory classes in history, it was she who first inspired them to engage with history and to incorporate it into their degrees. For students who have taken her upper–level seminars, on topics such as Queer America and American imperialism, Professor Fitzpatrick’s cultivation of vital and challenging learning communities, as well as her support and belief in their skill as researchers and writers, pushed them to deliver their best work.
Professor Fitzpatrick’s students trust her to challenge their biases, to give them thoughtful and generative criticism, and to support their intellectual development inside and outside of the classroom. That trust is rooted in her actions to support students beyond the pedagogical context: Professor Fitzpatrick is an outspoken supporter of student advocacy. While she has served as an important resource for students on a wide variety of issues, her public support of students advocating against sexual violence and professorial misconduct on campus is likely the most relevant to her tenure denial. In 2018, during student protests against the Faculty of Arts’ mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against professors, she openly criticized McGill in a CBC article. Within the history department, she has also been supportive of students’ calls for protection from predatory professors. She did all of this without the protection of tenure.
As the guarantee of long-term job security and institutional protection, tenure is the key labour demarcation of academic institutions. Without tenure, professors and other academic workers occupy precarious spaces within the university community, as evidenced by the administration’s denial of Professor Fitzpatrick’s application for tenure. In the absence of a clear answer from the university on why her application has been denied, her students are left to assume the only obvious reason why a professor with such an exceptional and exemplary record of teaching and service would not be tenured: That her courage in speaking against the university has resulted in a final punitive action. In an age of rising censorship and suppression of dissent across the globe, transparency and good faith action in our public institutions is critical. If McGill wants to prove itself to be a true 21st-century university, Professor Fitzpatrick must be reinstated.