Good Decision for Tenure Rights in Tufts Med School Case

On March 14, 2024, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision in Wortis v. Trustees of Tufts College that recognizes academic freedom and economic security—two concepts central to the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure—as “important norms in the academic community.” The case concerns Tufts University School of Medicine’s unilateral introduction of 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 salary cuts, reductions in lab space, and reduced their employment status from full to part time. The faculty members sued, claiming that Tufts violated the terms of their tenure contracts, which included documents that incorporated language pertaining to academic freedom and economic security, taken verbatim from the AAUP’s 1940 Statement.

Reversing in part a lower court decision dismissing the professors’ breach-of-contract claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote that “academic freedom and economic security are not hortatory concepts but important norms in the academic community.” After noting that the central contractual language at issue in the case was taken word-for-word from the 1940 Statement, the court echoed crucial points made in the AAUP’s amicus brief, explaining in particular that “academic freedom is essential to the common good” and that the purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom and ensure the economic security of faculty members.

The court concluded that economic security “is an important substantive provision of the tenure contracts” between Tufts and the professors. It observed that “permanent or continuous tenure would seem to be a hollow promise if it came without any salary commitment” and that “there is a reason champagne corks pop when tenure is awarded, and economic security is one of those obvious reasons.” The court therefore reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the professors’ breach-of-contract claims concerning their salary and employment status reductions, sending those claims back to the lower court for the development of further evidence regarding the application of the economic security provision, “including the practices and customs at TUSM and other similarly situated institutions.” The court noted that the 1940 Statement is “an appropriate guide for interpreting tenure contracts” because it is evidence of customs and norms in the academic community.

The AAUP’s full brief and the court’s decision is available here.

Publication Date: 
Friday, March 15, 2024