Wortis v. Trustees of Tufts College, No. SJC-13472 (Mass. 2023)

In response to a request for amicus briefs from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the AAUP submitted an amicus brief explaining how Tufts University violated the principle of tenure, and its guarantees of academic freedom and economic security, when it imposed a draconian compensation plan on medical school faculty.

The case arose when Tufts University School of Medicine unilaterally introduced a compensation plan that required faculty to raise a portion of their salaries by obtaining external grant funding. When the plaintiff faculty members did not meet those requirements, Tufts inflicted punitive reductions in lab space and reduced their full-time status. The faculty sued, asserting that Tufts violated the terms of their tenure contracts, particularly language Tufts took virtually verbatim from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure stating that faculty have “academic freedom” and “economic security.” The trial court ruled against the plaintiffs, and they appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Supreme Judicial Court invited interested parties to submit amicus briefs on the questions of: (1) “[w]hether the grant of tenure to the plaintiff faculty members provided them with enforceable contractual rights to academic freedom and economic security”; and (2) “if so, whether those rights were violated when the Trustees of Tufts College adopted policies that required the plaintiffs to cover a significant percentage of their salaries through external grant funding and imposed consequences for noncompliance, including reduction or closure of the plaintiffs’ laboratory space, reduction of their compensation, and reduction of their full-time employment status to part-time.”

The AAUP’s amicus brief should be useful to the court because of the AAUP’s unique ability to address these questions. The language in the Tufts contract concerning tenure, academic freedom, and economic security is taken from the 1940 Statement, which was jointly formulated by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities). The AAUP also has over sixty years of experience providing guidance to courts on how to interpret the 1940 Statement.

The AAUP’s brief highlighted the genesis of the Tufts tenure language, explaining:

When Tufts University School of Medicine granted Plaintiffs tenure, it promised them “academic freedom” and “economic security.” . . . Tufts did not pluck this language out of thin air. It deliberately took these words—virtually verbatim—from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which . . . has been endorsed by more than 250 scholarly and educational organizations, and has been incorporated into hundreds of university and college faculty handbooks. Adherence to the 1940 Statement has been recognized as one of the defining standards of an institution’s inclusion in the broader higher education community.

The 1940 Statement’s requirement for economic security is understood to be a core component of tenure and a key predicate to academic freedom. Economic security in the form of a guaranteed degree of security sufficient to attract persons of ability to the profession and a salary adequate to the maintenance of financial independence serves as an essential safeguard for academic freedom because it removes one of the chief avenues by which faculty may be brought to conform their research to the whims of powerful interests: the application of undue financial pressure. In addition, economic security in the form of restrictions on when a faculty member can be dismissed or sanctioned guarantees stability in employment and thereby helps to preserve academic freedom by preventing the use of discipline as a means of infringing upon the freedom of faculty to engage in research and other activities.

In this case, when Tufts unilaterally imposed an extraordinarily harsh set of measures that conditioned a substantial portion of faculty salary on obtaining external grant funding and inflicted punitive reductions in lab space and full-time status for noncompliance, it ran roughshod over the contractual guarantees of economic security and academic freedom, and thereby breached its contracts with plaintiffs.

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