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Tenure commonly refers to occupational tenure in a job and specifically to a senior academic's contractual right not to have their position terminated without just cause.

Academic tenure

Under the tenure systems adopted as internal policy by many universities and colleges, especially in the United States and Canada, tenure is associated with more senior job titles such as Professor and Associate Professor. A junior professor will not be promoted to such a tenured position without demonstrating a strong record of published research, teaching, and administrative service. Typical systems (such as the Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure[1]) allow only a limited period to establish such a record, by limiting the number of years that any employee can hold a junior title such as Assistant Professor. (An institution may also offer other academic titles that are not time-limited, such as Lecturer, Adjunct Professor, or Research Professor, but these positions do not carry the possibility of tenure and are said to be "off the tenure track.")

Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. In economies where higher education is provided by the private sector, tenure also has the effect of helping to ensure the integrity of the grading system. Absent tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.

Universities also have economic rationales for adopting tenure systems. First, job security and the accompanying autonomy are significant employee benefits; without them, universities might have to pay higher salaries or take other measures to attract and retain talented or well-known scholars. Second, junior faculty are driven to establish themselves by the high stakes of the tenure decision (i.e., lifetime tenure vs. job loss), arguably helping to create a culture of excellence within the university. Finally, tenured faculty may be more likely to invest time in improving the universities where they expect to remain for life; they may also be more willing to hire, mentor and promote talented junior colleagues who could otherwise threaten their positions. Many of these rationales resemble those for senior partner positions in law and accounting firms.

One cost of a tenure system is that some tenured professors may not use their freedom for the common good. Tenure has been criticized for allowing senior professors to become unproductive, shoddy, or irrelevant. Universities themselves bear this risk: they pay dearly whenever they guarantee lifetime employment to an individual who proves unworthy of it. Universities therefore exercise great care in offering tenured positions, first requiring an intensive formal review of the candidate's record of research, teaching, and service. This review typically takes several months and includes the solicitation of confidential letters of assessment from highly regarded scholars in the candidate's research area. Some colleges and universities also solicit letters from students about the candidate's teaching. A tenured position is offered only if both senior faculty and senior administrators judge that the candidate is likely to remain a productive scholar and teacher for life.

It has also been suggested that tenure may have the effect of diminishing political and academic freedom among those seeking it - that they must appear to conform to the political or academic views of the field or the institution where they seek tenure. For example, in 'The Trouble with Physics', Lee Smolin says " is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field [of string theory]."[2] It is certainly possible to view the tenure track as a long-term demonstration of the candidate's political and academic conformity. Patrick J. Michaels, a controversial part-time research professor at the University of Virginia, wrote: "...tenure has had the exact opposite effect as to its stated goal of diversifying free expression. Instead, it stifles free speech in the formative years of a scientist's academic career, and all but requires a track record in support of paradigms that might have outgrown their usefulness." [3]

In North American universities and colleges, the tenure track has long been a defining feature of employment. However, it is becoming less than universal.[4][5] Many colleges and universities—particularly those that do not seek a world-class research reputation—have taken advantage of the large supply of academic job applicants to reduce their tenure commitments. In North American universities, positions that carry tenure, or the opportunity to attain tenure, have grown more slowly than non-tenure-track positions, leading to a large "academic underclass".[6] For example, most U.S. universities currently supplement the work of tenured professors with the services of non-tenured adjunct professors, academics who teach classes for lower wages and fewer employment benefits under relatively short-term contracts.

For these, and other reasons, academic tenure was officially restructured in public universities in the United Kingdom by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It is no longer offered in Australia, New Zealand and in most of Europe. Note that most European university systems do not allow any teaching by young researchers, postgraduates, post doctoral fellows, or residents[How to reference and link to summary or text]. This is especially the case in Germany, where practice in universities (but not Advanced technical colleges) often differs from theory. In principle, teaching duties in German Universities are restricted to tenured faculty and a few non-tenured staff members paid for research and teaching. In reality, much teaching is done by non-tenured research students and adjunct faculty. In France, tenure is granted early in academic ranks as well as to CNRS and other researchers.

Outside the United States and Canada, it is still common to offer a long contract to candidates who pass a less stringent review or confirmation, but with somewhat less job security than in lifetime tenure systems. Moreover, tenure is under attack in state universities in the United States. New Zealand offers "Confirmation" which is similar in effect to tenure, except that all university lecturers in New Zealand have a duty, enshrined in law, to act as a critic and conscience of society, whether their position is permanent or not.

In certain jurisdictions, tenure is also granted to schoolteachers at primary and secondary schools, following a probationary period.


Tenure is not usually given immediately to new professors. Instead, open jobs are designated eligible for tenure, or "tenure-track", during the hiring process. Typically, a professor hired in a tenure-eligible position will then work for approximately five years before a review commences to determine whether tenure will be granted.

The professor's academic department will then collect information about the professor's record in teaching, research, and service, and will vote on whether to recommend the candidate for tenure. The weight given to each of these areas varies depending on the type of institution the individual works for; for example, research intensive universities value research most highly, while more teaching intensive institutions value teaching and service to the institution more highly.

The department's recommendation is given to a tenure review committee normally comprising faculty members from outside the department as well as deans. It may be a standing committee or an ad hoc committee, depending on the institution. If this committee in turn recommends that the professor be awarded tenure, their action must be approved by the institution's top officer (usually a president, chancellor, or provost) or by its governing board (usually a Board of Trustees or Board of Regents).

A candidate denied tenure is sometimes considered to have been dismissed, but this is not entirely accurate: the tenure review commonly takes place in the sixth year of a seven-year contract, so that a candidate who is denied tenure will have a year to search for new employment. Also, a few prestigious universities and departments in the U.S. award tenure to their junior faculty so rarely that being denied it is scarcely an insult.

A department may also make "senior hires" directly into tenured positions such as Professor or Associate Professor. Offering such a position usually requires submitting the candidate to the same lengthy tenure review that would be required for an internal promotion. Generally speaking, senior positions are offered only to established academics who have already received (or are under consideration for) tenure at their current university. Senior positions are also occasionally offered to distinguished researchers who are currently employed outside academia, for example at research labs in government or industry.

Outside the US and Canada, a variety of contractual systems operate. Commonly, a procedure is used to move staff members from temporary to "permanent" contracts. Permanent contracts, like tenure, may still be broken by employers in certain circumstances: for example if the staff member works in a department earmarked for closure.


Tenure can only be revoked for cause, normally only following severe misconduct by the professor. Revocation is usually a lengthy and tedious procedure. In Colorado, where the question of what constitutes grounds for dismissal of a tenured professor arose as the result of the controversial comments of Ward Churchill regarding the victims of the 9/11 attack, grounds for dismissal are "professional incompetence, neglect of duty, insubordination, conviction of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude… or sexual harassment or other conduct which falls below minimum standards of professional integrity."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In 1994, a study in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that "about 50 tenured professors nationwide are dismissed each year for cause".[7] A study in the Wall Street Journal published January 10 2005 estimated that 50 to 75 tenured professors (out of about 280,000) lose their tenure each year.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

While tenure protects the occupant of an academic position, it does not protect against the elimination of that position. For example, a university that is under financial stress may take the drastic step of eliminating or downsizing some departments.

See also the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) website.[8]

Criticisms of the tenure process

The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) has handled hundreds of cases where tenure candidates were treated unfairly. The AAUP has censured many major and minor universities and colleges for tenure abuses.[9][10]

Tenure at many universities depends solely on research publications and research grants although the universities' official policies are that tenure depends on research, teaching and service.[11] Even articles in refereed teaching journals and teaching grants may not count towards tenure at such universities.

At some universities, the department chairperson sends forward the department recommendation on tenure. There have been cases where the faculty voted unanimously to tenure an individual but the chairperson sent forward a recommendation not to grant tenure despite the faculty support.

Tenure decisions can result in fierce politics. In one tenure battle at Indiana University, an untenured professor was accused of threatening violence against those who opposed his promotion, his wife briefly went on a hunger strike, and many called for the entire department to be disbanded. [12]

As more academics publish research in Internet and multimedia formats, some university departments have revised their promotion and tenure criteria to reflect the increasing importance of networked scholarship.[13]

See also


  1. Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure from the American Association of University Professors
  2. The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin
  3. Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming, Patrick J. Michaels, Chap. 11 p. 229
  4. "White Paper #1 - Tenure" Illinois State University’s AAUP
  5. "Transient professors: How important is tenure?" Evelyn Shih (2003) The Yale Herald
  6. "Tenure in the new millennium: Still a valuable concept" James T. Richardson (1999) National Forum (see section on "Split labour theory in academe")
  7. Carolyn J. Mooney, "Dismissals for Cause", The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 7 1994, page A17
  11. Boyer, E.L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  12. Alleged Death Threats, a Hunger Strike, and a Department at Risk Over a Tenure Decision Courtney Leatherman (2000). Chronicle of Higher Education.
  13. "New Criteria for New Media" Joline Blais, et al. (2009) Leonardo (Cambridge: MIT Press).


  • Amacher, Ryan C. Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education. Oakland: Independent Institute, 2004.
  • Chait, Richard P. (Ed.). The Questions of Tenure. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.
  • Joughlin, Louis (Ed.). Academic Freedom and Tenure. Madison: U. of Wisc. Press, 1969.
  • Rudolph, Frederick. American College and University: A History (Reissue Edition). Athens: Univ. of Ga. Press, 1990.
  • Haworth, Karla. "Florida Regents Approve Post-Tenure Reviews for All Professors." The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11 1996, A15.
  • Magner, Denise K. "Minnesota Regents' Proposals Stir Controversy With Faculty." The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 20 1996, A11.
  • Leatherman, Courtney. "Alleged Death Threats, a Hunger Strike, and a Department at Risk." The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 4 2000, A12.
  • Wilson, Robin. "A Higher Bar for Earning Tenure." The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5 2001, A12.
  • Wilson, Robin. "Northeastern Proposal for Post-Tenure Review Goes Too Far, Critics Say." The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11 2001, A14.
  • Whiting, B.J. Delegate to the ACLS of the Medieval Academy of America, in 1953 (Speculum 28[1953] 633–34). The Council was alarmed at the thought that a national academic faculty of 50,000 would have to grow to 90,000 by the year 1965 in order to keep up with the demographic demand. This news was reported as staggering. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that "Postsecondary teachers held nearly 1.6 million jobs in 2004", at least a quarter million of them undeniably humanistic.
  • Wilson, Robin. "Working Half Time on the Tenure Track." The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 25 2002, A10.
  • Fogg, Piper. "Presidents Favor Scrapping Tenure." The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 4 2005, A31.
  • Duke University (2005) News and Communications. "How Tenure Lines Brought Change to Women's Studies: Faculty see structural, intellectual change in program".

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