Legal Watch: Defending Tenure and Economic Security at Tufts and Beyond

By Edward Swidriski

In October, the AAUP submitted an amicus brief to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Wortis v. Trustees of Tufts College, a case that could prove significant in shap­ing the legal meaning of tenure, academic freedom, and economic security. The lawsuit was brought by a group of tenured basic science professors at Tufts University School of Medicine who are challenging the school’s imposition of a con­troversial compensation plan that requires faculty to obtain external grant funding to cover a significant portion of their salaries and imposes harsh penalties for noncompliance. The AAUP’s brief urges the Mas­sachusetts high court to rule that the university’s promises of tenure, academic freedom, and economic security created binding contracts with the professors, and that Tufts breached those contractual commit­ments when it unilaterally imposed such draconian terms on the faculty.

Beginning in 2016, Tufts’s medical school began to implement changes to its compensation policies with the goal of requiring all faculty members—tenured and nontenured alike—to raise a sizeable portion of their salaries by obtaining grants from external funding sources, such as the National Institutes of Health. When faculty members did not meet those funding requirements, the administration inflicted punitive reductions in their laboratory space, cut their compensation, and reduced their full-time status. The admin­istration instituted these policies unilaterally, without any meaningful faculty participation. In response, seven tenured professors filed suit against Tufts, claiming that the university had breached the terms of their contracts. Their suit relies in large part on the Tufts Academic Freedom and Tenure Policy, con­tained in the medical school’s faculty handbook, which includes language guaranteeing faculty academic free­dom and economic security taken verbatim from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Free­dom and Tenure. A state trial court dismissed the professors’ claims, but the state’s highest court agreed to hear the case and, in a move indicat­ing the case’s broader importance, issued a call for amicus briefs from interested parties.

The AAUP’s brief argues that, by adopting language directly from the 1940 Statement, Tufts bound itself to respecting its faculty’s academic freedom and economic security as those concepts have come to be understood by the academic com­munity. Given the important role the AAUP played in drafting the 1940 Statement and the AAUP’s widely recognized authority in the realm of tenure and academic freedom, the brief also points to subsequent Association statements that shed useful light on what these concepts mean to the profession. In particular, the brief focuses on the meaning of “economic security,” explain­ing that it is a crucial component of tenure and an indispensable adjunct to academic freedom. As used in the 1940 Statement, the term economic security consists of two core guarantees: a guarantee that faculty will enjoy “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability,” which includes a salary adequate to the maintenance of financial independence, and a guarantee that faculty members will not be dismissed or face major sanctions without affordance of academic due process. These prom­ises serve as an essential safeguard for academic freedom because they blunt one of the chief instruments with which faculty members can be pressured into conforming their research to the whims of powerful interests: the application of undue financial pressure.

The sheer size of the salary reductions and the severity of the other punitive consequences faced by noncompliant faculty, together with the unilateral nature of the policies, makes a clear case that Tufts ran afoul of its contractual obligation to ensure its faculty’s economic secu­rity. In addition, the AAUP’s brief stresses that respect for academic freedom, tenure, and economic secu­rity is no less important at medical schools than at any other institutions of higher education.

AAUP statements concerning medical schools—such as Academic Freedom in the Medical School and Tenure in the Medical School—are founded on the 1940 Statement and apply its general principles to the medical school setting. Although the AAUP has recognized that medical schools have a unique history and that they have developed somewhat different compensation practices for certain types of faculty positions, there is no medical school exception that permits Tufts—or any other institution—to take the extraordi­narily harsh measures it did.

The AAUP’s amicus brief should assist the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in arriving at a proper understanding of tenure, economic security, and academic freedom: one that recognizes what these concepts mean to the profes­sion and acknowledges the vital importance of protecting them.

Edward Swidriski is assistant counsel at the AAUP.