Eight Myths about Tenure

Misconceptions surround a misunderstood and maligned principle.
By Henry Reichman

Empty university lecture hall

Tenure—the right to continuous employment, which may be terminated only for adequate cause or under conditions of bona fide financial exigency or of a bona fide department or program discontinuance and only on the recommendation of an appropriate faculty committee—is arguably the most misunderstood and maligned principle in higher education today among both the general population and even educators ourselves. Seen by many as simply a “professional masquerade,” to employ the late AAUP president and legal scholar William Van Alstyne’s term, disguising little more than the selfish privilege of an entrenched elite, tenure has been repeatedly derided for protecting mediocrity and thwarting the emergence of the new, the fresh, and the young.

In a 1958 case the Supreme Court of South Dakota opined, “The exact meaning and intent of this socalled tenure policy eludes us. Its vaporous objectives, purposes, and procedures are lost in a fog of nebulous verbiage.” One might think that jurists would know better, given that federal judges enjoy life tenure, the justifications for which, as Adam Sitze reminded us in an August 2022 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, are similar to those underpinning academic tenure. But those justices’ confusion is hardly uncommon today. Like many in our time, they failed to grasp the realities of the tenure system, much less its grounding principles; instead, they were mainly familiar with the many dangerous myths surrounding it.

What are some of these myths? Here are eight that bear refuting.

Myth 1: Tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment.

Not long ago a frustrated alum of a prestigious law school complained to me that a senior faculty member at the school, credibly charged with serious sexual harassment, could not be removed because he was tenured. “There’s nothing we can do,” she told me. Not true. Dismissing a tenured professor is not only possible; it happens more than occasionally. Moreover, even though such dismissals rightly place a heavy burden of proof on an institution, in more than a handful of cases—usually not publicized—tenured instructors guilty of misconduct and faced with the threat of dismissal may choose instead to retire or quietly resign.

According to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, issued jointly by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities, or AAC&U), “Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” It simply provides that once a probationary period is complete, a full-time faculty member must not be subject to periodic reappointment and may be dismissed only for adequate cause or on account of bona fide financial exigency or program discontinuance.

What is meant by adequate cause? Individual institutions will define this term differently, but in 1973 a joint Commission on Academic Tenure in Higher Education, sponsored by the AAUP and AAC&U, recommended that grounds for dismissal be limited to “(a) demonstrated incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research, (b) substantial and manifest neglect of duty, and (c) personal conduct which substantially impairs the individual’s fulfillment of his [or her] institutional responsibilities.” The AAUP has also deemed a number of grounds for dismissal inadmissible, including insubordination, political affiliation, damaging the reputation of the institution, or the mere fact of negative performance reviews.

Most important, “adequate cause” cannot merely be asserted. It must be proven to the satisfaction of an appropriately constituted body of faculty peers. Tenure is essentially a guarantee of academic due process and presumption of innocence. To be sure, due-process protections should be available to all who teach and conduct research, tenured or not, but tenure establishes, in Van Alstyne’s words, “a presumption of professional fitness,” thereby shifting the burden of demonstrating misconduct or incompetence to the institution. That burden may and should be a heavy one, but if some administrations shy away from bearing it, that is hardly the fault of the tenure system itself.

If tenure is seen as something that can never be revoked, as a lifetime privilege, and if dismissal procedures are so difficult to implement as to be dysfunctional, then tenure will be discredited and its critical role in ensuring the protections of academic freedom and guaranteeing essential economic security to faculty members will be lost.

Myth 2: Tenure is a reward for merit or a symbol of prestige granted to a privileged few.

As Hans-Joerg Tiede demonstrates elsewhere in this issue, prior to the 1940 Statement, tenure “was largely identified with rank” and perceived by most as a prize limited to a handful. But the 1940 Statement grounds tenure not in merit but in experience. In the AAUP’s view, tenure need not be granted on the basis of a formal and rigorous review process, although most institutions with tenure systems sensibly require such a process. As the 1940 Statement succinctly puts it, “After the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure.”

In this vision tenure is treated as a right accruing to anyone successfully completing a suitable testing period and can, in principle, be acquired even automatically. If the 1940 Statement is to apply, as soon as the probationary period—defined by the Statement as a maximum of seven years—is complete a faculty member will be entitled to the privileges that accrue with tenure, irrespective of institutional action. This is why the AAUP does not recognize any type of full-time appointment other than those that are probationary for tenure or tenured, regardless of the contractual or legal position an individual faculty member may occupy within a given institution’s policies. Tenure is also not limited to those who may hold a specific academic rank or title. It may be granted to assistant, associate, or full professors or to instructors and lecturers or to so-called professors of practice. While some institutions employ an “up or out” system in which tenure is achieved only on promotion to a specific rank, in principle tenure need not be granted in conjunction with promotion. Hence tenure should not be understood as a reward for merit or a symbol of prestige. It simply denotes a continuing appointment, not professional standing.

Myth 3: Tenure is principally designed to protect scholars who engage in research.

While research-oriented institutions often prioritize research productivity as a criterion for awarding tenure, the purpose of tenure is to ensure academic freedom and security in all professional duties. It should protect both research and teaching, as well as institutional governance activities. Indeed, the high-water mark of tenure’s reach came in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the immense growth of community colleges and state technical and teacher-training institutions, where the great majority of faculty positions were devoted exclusively or almost exclusively to teaching yet still carried with them the prospect of tenure.

Sadly, as Tiede points out, although “tenure was not designed as a merit badge for research-intensive faculty, that is what it has quite frequently become.” Still, if anything, tenure’s protections for academic freedom are today most essential in the classroom and to protect the right of all faculty, whether teachers or researchers, to speak freely as citizens. Moreover, even in research the erosion of tenure has been evidenced in the increasing reliance on nontenured research positions and postdoctoral appointments.

For the great majority of faculty members in the United States today, research activities are secondary to their responsibilities in the classroom. To limit tenure’s protection only to those substantially engaged in research is to endanger the academic freedom of not only teaching faculty members but also the entire faculty, including full-time researchers. Tenured positions should be equally available to those in teaching-intensive positions and those whose primary responsibilities lie in research.

Myth 4: Tenure protects "dead wood."

Critics of the tenure system often charge that it inappropriately and excessively protects senior faculty who should probably not have been tenured in the first place or, more frequently, who have lost enthusiasm for teaching or whose research productivity has stagnated. In short, it is claimed, tenure can promote mediocrity and safeguard “dead wood.” No data have ever been offered, however, to suggest that such problems are anything close to widespread. In the former case, the rigors of the tenure system and the observance of strict tenure rules actually make mistakes in hiring and promotion less likely. As for the latter, a former AAUP president, the late libertarian economist Fritz Machlup, asked, “Is it really believable that many faculty members, once alert, ambitious, inspiring, and productive, but now lazy and dull, would still be live wires, full of spark, and constantly recharged with new learning, if only they had no assured tenure, if only they had to live in constant fear for their jobs?”

This is not to deny, of course, that faculty members, like all people, may change. If some become demoralized or disillusioned, however, might that be a consequence less of tenure than of the institutional leadership that makes their work more tedious and hidebound by arbitrary rules and paperwork, deprives them of resources, or fails to renew the ranks of their tenure-track colleagues? Making it easier to dismiss such faculty members may do more to exacerbate than solve whatever genuine problems exist.

One mechanism that many colleges and universities have adopted to address concerns about declining interest and outdated approaches among senior tenured faculty is post-tenure review. But, as a 1999 AAUP report stressed, “post-tenure review ought to be aimed not at accountability, but at faculty development. Post-tenure review must be developed and carried out by faculty. Post-tenure review must not be a reevaluation of tenure, nor may it be used to shift the burden of proof from an institution’s administration (to show cause for dismissal) to the individual faculty member (to show cause why he or she should be retained). Post-tenure review must be conducted according to standards that protect academic freedom and the quality of education.”

Myth 5: Tenure entrenches privilege and hierarchy, inhibiting racial and gender diversity.

That the ranks of the increasingly shrinking tenured faculty are disproportionately senior, white, and male is attributable not to tenure itself but principally to the far too limited number of tenure-track opportunities offered to increasingly diverse cohorts of younger scholars, and also, as Chavella T. Pittman argues elsewhere in this issue, to practices and tenure criteria that too often devalue the research, teaching, and service of faculty members of color. Louis Howard Porter, an African American scholar of Russian history, has pointedly asked, “A quarter of all academic jobs are on the tenure track, so how does inclusion and diversity in our field empower Black people? How is diversity empowering Black people, if for every Black person who obtains an assistant professorship, three find themselves faced with the choice of either leaving the profession or remaining adjunct faculty?”

If the tenure system has at times appeared—and, more often than it should be, has actually been—elitist, the emerging “gig academy” of often part-time work and short-term contracts offers anything but an egalitarian alternative. Appointing faculty on contingent contracts necessarily entails continuous monitoring and assessment of faculty work, too often by nonfaculty bureaucrats. The result, as former AAUP general secretary Ernst Benjamin put it, is frequently a culture of either “mutual back-scratching or mutual back-stabbing,” with, it might be added, far too many opportunities for conscious or unconscious discrimination.

It hardly seems a coincidence that the explosion of contingent employment has emerged alongside the increasing numbers of women and faculty of color entering the profession. Education writer John Warner has distinguished “tenure as principle” from “tenure as policy.” The latter, he writes, “has become something to be doled out to the elect, and has allowed for the establishment of a multi-tiered faculty, where only the top tier has access to the protections of ‘tenure as principle.’” It “has emerged gradually over time as a consequence of the corporatized university. It is not the fault of currently tenured faculty. Currently tenured faculty should also not feel any personal guilt over the establishment of this system over which they had no control.” Warner advocates extending “the values of tenure to those who don’t have access to them.” But, he adds, that cannot be the responsibility solely of “contingent faculty who do not have the academic freedom or job security or economic standing of tenured faculty. . . . The sooner this is tackled by tenured faculty, the better. It will be better to figure this out while some faculty still have tenure and some of the power that goes with it, than to wait until it diminishes further or is wiped away entirely, and there is no reason for legislatures or administrations to listen or act on faculty desires, and suddenly all faculty know what it is to be contingent.”

In short, if we wish to make our profession more diverse, more representative of the students we teach and the population we serve, as we must, then the solution is hardly to abandon tenure but to work harder to again expand its reach.

Myth 6: Tenure prevents individual scholars from receiving appropriate compensation in a free market.

This is a myth we don’t hear so much these days, but it used to be argued—and some “free-market” enthusiasts still do make such claims—that tenure offers a trade-off between long-term security and higher salaries. The existence of tenure was said to keep professorial salaries lower than they would be without the system. Individual professors could earn more on the job market were they to sacrifice the security of tenure, it was claimed. For many years few economists questioned the belief that while tenure’s prospect of job security might attract some to academia, it also tended to reduce salaries, although it was a principle derived from theoretical assumptions and not based on data.

Today that thesis is laughable. Now that only a fourth of those teaching in higher education have access to a tenure system, we can readily compare the salaries of those who are in the system with those who are not. It’s no contest, no matter how much salaries of tenured faculty have stagnated in recent years. Studies find that part-time faculty earn about 60 percent less than comparable full-time tenure-track faculty for the same or more work. Median salaries of full-time non-tenure-track faculty twenty years ago were roughly 25 to 30 percent lower than those of full-time tenure-track faculty, although that gap has since narrowed a bit. The same can be said of faculty members whose assignment is fully in research, especially the burgeoning ranks of those on postdoctoral appointments.

Myth 7: Union contracts make tenure unnecessary.

Given the growing assaults on tenure and the longterm growth of contingent faculty appointments, it is, perhaps, understandable that some are now willing to abandon efforts to defend and expand tenure in favor of gaining union recognition. Certainly, faculty unions, including those in the AAUP, have won considerable gains with respect not only to salary and working conditions but also to job security and protections for shared governance and academic freedom. But as AAUP president Irene Mulvey and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten have asked in response to one tenured professor who argued publicly that she would “gladly exchange my tenure for a union,” “why not both?” “Rather than setting up tenure and unions as mutually exclusive, which they most certainly are not, we should recognize the complementary nature of the two and the need for both academic tenure and unions to protect academic freedom, promote shared governance, encourage workplace justice and ensure that higher education plays its essential role as a common good in our democracy,” they write.

As Mulvey and Weingarten add, most tenured faculty members in the United States today do not have even the opportunity to choose between tenure and a union. Under the US Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University, nearly all tenured faculty members at private universities are for all intents and purposes excluded from union recognition, and only a minority of states permit public university faculty to unionize. “Dismantling the tenure system will not make organizing any easier,” Mulvey and Weingarten conclude.

Myth 8: Tenure is an individual right.

Underpinning many myths about tenure—and, indeed, about academic freedom itself—is the belief that both should be understood first and foremost as rights accruing to individual faculty members. But both tenure and academic freedom do not exist primarily to provide protection to individual scholars. The 1940 Statement recognized that colleges and universities “are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.” Academic freedom and tenure, therefore, do not exist out of a peculiar concern for the individuals who staff our institutions. Tenure protects academic freedom by ensuring that scholars may be uninhibited in criticizing and advocating controversial changes in accepted theories, widely held beliefs, and existing institutions as well as in the policies, programs, and leadership of their own institutions and may do so without fear of nonreappointment or dismissal. But perhaps most important, the existence of a sufficiently large group of tenured faculty members can ensure that dissenters and gadflies will have a community of supporters able to advocate on their behalf with minimal fear of retaliation.

As Machlup put it, “We need and want teachers and scholars who would unhesitatingly come to the defense of the ‘odd ball,’ the heretic, the dissenter, the troublemaker, whose freedom to speak and to write is under some threat from colleagues, administrators, governing board, government, or pressure groups. The impulse to take up the cudgels for the ‘odd ball’ is all too easily suppressed if unpleasant consequences must be feared by those who defend him.”


These myths, and others, together help keep not only the public but much of the professoriate from recognizing a harsh reality: tenure, for nearly a century the strongest bulwark in defense of academic freedom, protecting independent scholarship from shifting political winds and the whims of scholarly fashion, is under withering assault. Indeed, in many places, with more than three-fourths of the faculty denied even its prospect, tenure all but hangs by a thread. If tenure itself is not to become yet another myth, we will have to get to work.

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, is a former AAUP vice president and past chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Portions of this essay are adapted from the chapter on tenure in his 2021 book, Understanding Academic Freedom, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.