What is academic tenure?

A tenured appointment is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.

Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has assumed responsibility for developing standards to guide higher education in service of the common good. The modern conception of tenure in US higher education originated with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Jointly formulated and endorsed by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the 1940 Statement has gained the endorsement of more than 250 scholarly and higher education organizations. It is widely adopted into faculty handbooks and collective bargaining agreements at institutions of higher education throughout the United States.

Why is tenure important? What purpose does it serve?

The principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education.  When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.

Tenure provides the conditions for faculty to pursue research and innovation and draw evidence-based conclusions free from corporate or political pressure.

How does tenure serve the public interest?

Education and research benefit society, but society does not benefit when teachers and researchers are controlled by corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government. Free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent are critical for student learning and the advancement of knowledge. Therefore, it is important to have systems in place to protect academic freedom. Tenure serves that purpose.

How does tenure benefit colleges and universities?

Tenure promotes stability. Faculty members who are committed to the institution can develop ties with the local community, pursue ongoing research projects, and mentor students and beginning scholars over the long term.

Does tenure only benefit individual professors?

Although tenure does protect individual faculty members, it actually serves society and the common good by protecting the quality of teaching and research and thus the integrity of institutions of higher education. If faculty members can lose their positions for what they say in the classroom or for what they write in an article, they are unlikely to risk addressing controversial issues. The common good is not served when business, political, or other entities can threaten the livelihood of researchers and instructors, and thereby suppress the results of their work or modify their judgements. For a list of ways that tenure benefits students and society, see Lois Cox and Katherine Tachau's "Top Ten Ways Tenure Benefits Students and All Iowans."

Do all professors have tenure?

The number of tenured faculty within the academic labor force has declined to about 21 percent. Thus, the number of teachers and researchers who are protected when speaking in the classroom or publishing research on controversial topics is declining. Institutions commonly evaluate faculty members during and at the end of a probationary period.

Should all professors be eligible for tenure?

The AAUP holds that all full-time faculty members, regardless of rank, are to be considered eligible for tenure. The AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure insist that, “with the exception of special appointments clearly limited to a brief association with the institution, . . . all full-time faculty appointments are of two kinds: (1) probationary appointments; (2) appointments with continuous tenure.”

The AAUP also supports tenure for part-time faculty members. The AAUP’s report on Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments recommends “fractional positions, including fully proportional pay, that are eligible for tenure and benefits, with proportional expectations for service and professional development.”

What is an example of a professor who needs academic freedom and tenure to do their work?

In 2003, Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University discovered that high levels of lead were present in the Washington, DC, water supply. He spent years proving that misconduct at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency worsened the DC water crisis and endangered children's’ health. In 2015, he found higher levels of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, and, despite reassurances by state and local authorities, his findings were again confirmed. Edwards set up a website, to share his findings with the public and hold the government accountable. “I didn’t get in this field to stand by and let science be used to poison little kids,” he told the Washington Post, “I can’t live in a world where that happens. I won’t live in that world.” Academic freedom and tenure protects professors like Edwards from being disciplined, dismissed or silenced when their work risks offending powerful interests, including business or government interests.

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