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On Understanding Tenure

There are numerous views about tenure, and one can easily get lost in the back-and-forth debate and discussions about the topic.  However, having an understanding of the origins and purposes of tenure should provide a foundation – a starting point that will provide therefore a perspective on tenure itself but also the varying views held about its value and perhaps, most importantly, whether tenure should be continued.

Why the interest in tenure?  There were cases involving academics and attempts to limit the expression of ideas by academics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In an article entitled The Role of Tenure in Higher Education [1], John E. Savage, a professor of computer science at Brown University, wrote:

Tenure was introduced to American colleges and universities early in this century in response to decades of public discussion of the arbitrary dismissal of faculty members for holding unpopular views. One of the most celebrated cases leading to tenure involved President Andrews of Brown University. Late in the 19th century, he advocated the free coinage of silver as a means to stop deflation in the American economy. This angered members of the Brown Corporation many of whom were creditors benefiting from deflation by being repaid with increasingly valuable money. They told President Andrews that he must cease his public support for this issue. This led to a national debate through letters to the editor. In one of these letters Francis Wayland, Brown Corporation member and Dean of the Yale Law School, said that President Andrews’ position threatened donations to Brown and that money was the life blood of universities. In a widely discussed response, Prof. Josiah Royce of Harvard’s distinguished Philosophy Department said that freedom, not money, is the life blood of the university. As this story illustrates, a passionate national debate raged over academic freedom before tenure took hold in American higher education. But the censorship of unpopular economic ideas did not stop with the case of Benjamin Andrews. in the late 1940’s, the University of Illinois at Urbana fired a group of untenured economists, all of whom subsequently had distinguished careers, for teaching the ‘heresy’ of Keynesian economics.

In addition to this controversy at Brown University, there were cases at other universities.  For example, Richard Ely, who founded the American Economics Association (1885), had served as a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) from 1881 to 1892.  He left JHU to accept the position of Director of the School of Economics that had just been created at the University of Wisconsin.

As described in the Wisconsin Historical website:

In 1894 Ely was teaching economics at Madison, including the various socialist and communist economic theories gaining popularity at the time. When this was discovered by Oliver E. Wells, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ely was attacked in the press not just for teaching left-wing theories to Wisconsin’s youth but also for supposedly advising radical activists who were organizing a strike in Madison. When his dismissal was demanded, the university regents investigated his activities.

After a series of witnesses had testified, the regents found no cause to fire Ely. Instead, they issued a famous statement defending the importance of academic freedom in a democracy:

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

That statement has become one of the foundation stones of intellectual freedom in America and a hallmark of the University of Wisconsin. A plaque with that quote is affixed to Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.  The complete document and a longer account of the Ely incident is available through the Wisconsin Electronic Reader created by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[2]

These kinds of events led to the creation of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  That committee issued the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.[3]  In addition, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also issued 25 years later The 1940 Statement on the Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.[4]

One of the major points made by the 1915 Declaration is a distinction between a public trust and a private trust.  It regarded certain institutions, which it called proprietary schools, as promoting a specific point of view and that was contrary to academic freedom or freedom of inquiry.  Those institutions are

“… designed for the propagation of specific doctrines prescribed by those who have furnished its endowment. It is evident that in such cases the trustees are bound by the deed of gift, and, whatever be their own views, are obligated to carry out the terms of the trust.”

It goes on to give two examples:

“If a church or religious denomination establishes a college to be governed by a board of trustees, with the express understanding that the college will be used as an instrument of propaganda in the interests of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it, the trustees have a right to demand that everything be subordinated to that end …

If … a wealthy manufacturer establishes a special school in a university in order to teach, among other things, the advantages of a protective tariff, or if … an institution has been endowed for the purpose of propagating the doctrines of socialism, the situation is analogous. All of these are essentially proprietary institutions …”

In essence, the 1915 Declaration said that, because these institutions were obligated to a certain point of view, they could not at the same time promote freedom of inquiry.

“They do not … accept the principles of freedom of inquiry, of opinion, and of teaching; … their purpose is not to advance knowledge by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigators, but rather to subsidize the promotion of opinions held by the persons, usually not of the scholar’s calling, who provide the funds for their maintenance …”

The Declaration then goes on to tie tenure and freedom of inquiry:

“If education is the cornerstone of the structure of society and if progress in scientific knowledge is essential to civilization, few things can be more important than to enhance the dignity of the scholar’s profession, … that men of high gift and character should be drawn into it by the assurance of an honorable and secure position, and of freedom to perform honestly and according to their own consciences …”


“ … to deal … with the sources of knowledge; and to impart the results of their own and of their fellow-specialists’ investigations and reflection, both to students and to the general public, without fear or favor. The proper discharge of this function requires (among other things) that the university teacher shall be exempt from any pecuniary motive or inducement to hold, or to express, any conclusion which is not the genuine and uncolored product of his own study or that of fellow specialists. Indeed, the proper fulfillment of the work of the professoriate requires that our universities shall be so free that no fairminded person shall find any excuse for even a suspicion that the utterances of university teachers are shaped or restricted by the judgment, not of professional scholars, but of inexpert and possibly not wholly disinterested persons outside of their ranks. (emphasis added) … To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation and promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars, in an unadulterated form, the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish.”

Are there abuses of tenure?  Yes, they are unquestionably examples where a tenured faculty member does not do work or teach of the highest calibre, but shouldn’t the issue in those cases, given the origins of tenure which sets forth clear expectations for faculty and their work in promoting freedom of inquiry, be the performance of the individual faculty member in question who has not lived up to those standards, but not tenure itself?

Here are links to a few institutional statements regarding tenure:

Carnegie Mellon University[5]:

Academic freedom and responsibility

In all educational activities, each faculty member has the freedom and the responsibility to choose the material and the format that will, in his or her judgment, best serve the objectives of the specific course or activity as well as of the educational program of Carnegie Mellon University. The faculty member has the right to express opinions on matters pertinent to the subject; he or she has the responsibility to respect the freedom of belief of the students and their right to express their opinions, and the duty to make clear the distinction between information and opinion.

Each faculty member has the freedom to determine how to make contributions to his or her field, in education, research, scholarship or artistic creation, and the responsibility to adhere to the ethical standards and the evidentiary criteria generally accepted by professionals in that field.

It is the duty of the administrative officers and of the trustees of Carnegie Mellon University to assist and protect the faculty in the exercise of these freedoms and responsibilities.

Standards of faculty conduct

By accepting membership in the university, an individual joins a community committed to free inquiry, intellectual honesty and respect for the dignity of others. It is a community open to constructive change.

The welfare, indeed the survival, of the academic community rests on the willing consent given by its members to the principles that guide their conduct. They all, faculty, students, administrators and staff, have the responsibility to take care that the highest standards of integrity be adhered to in the conduct of all academic affairs.

Sanctionable violations of these standards of faculty conduct include, but are not limited to: engaging in fraudulent or otherwise unethical conduct in academic affairs, or encouraging or tolerating such conduct in other members of the university; misuse of authority to harass, intimidate, or defame others; interference with the normal performance of duties and functions of members and invited guests of the university; theft or willful destruction of property of the university or of its members.

University of Minnesota[6]

Tenure is the keystone for academic freedom and excellence, awarded for academic and professional merit. The Regents Policy on Faculty Tenure (tenure regulations) is the comprehensive institutional code that articulates the formal relationship between the University and its faculty. The tenure regulations were adopted by the Board of Regents in 1945 and continues to uphold “the conviction that a well-defined statement of rules is essential to the protection of academic freedom and to the promotion of excellence at the University of Minnesota. A well-designed promotion and tenure system ensures that considerations of academic quality will be the basis for academic personnel decisions, and thus provides the foundation for academic excellence.” (Preamble, Regents Policy on Faculty Tenure)

The University of Tennessee[7]

Academic Freedom and Responsibility of the Faculty Member

A healthy tradition of academic freedom and tenure is essential to the proper functioning of a University. At the same time, membership in a society of scholars enjoins upon a faculty member certain obligations to colleagues, to the University and to the State that guarantees academic freedom.

  1. The primary responsibility of a faculty member is to use the freedom of his or her office in an honest, courageous, and persistent effort to search out and communicate the truth that lies in the area of his or her competence.
  2. A faculty member is entitled to full freedom in research and in publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of his or her other academic duties, but research for pecuniary gain either within or beyond the scope of his or her employment must be based upon an understanding with The University administration, according to The University’s policies (e.g., Compensated Outside Services, Conflict of Interest).
  3. A faculty member should maintain a high level of personal integrity and professional competence, as demonstrated in teaching, research, and service. Academic freedom does not exempt a faculty member from an evaluation by colleagues and administration of his or her qualifications for continued membership in their society.
  4. A faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the subject, but the faculty member should use care in expressing personal views in the classroom and should be careful not to introduce controversial matters that have no relation to the subject taught, and especially matters in which he or she has no special competence or training and in which, therefore, the faculty member’s views cannot claim the authority accorded his or her professional statements.
  5. A faculty member should recognize that the right of academic freedom is enjoyed by all members of the academic community. He or she should be prepared at all times to support actively the right of the individual to freedom of research and communication as defined herein.
  6. In addition to the normal responsibilities of a citizen of the state and nation, including the duty to uphold their Constitutions and obey their laws, a faculty member also should conduct himself or herself professionally with colleagues. He or she should strive to maintain the mutual respect and confidence of his or her colleagues. He or she should endeavor to understand the customs, traditions, and usages of the academic community.
  7. When, as a citizen, a faculty member speaks outside the classroom or writes for publication, he or she should be free, as a citizen, to express his or her opinions. Each faculty member should conduct himself or herself professionally, should be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make clear that he or she speaks for himself or herself and not for The University.

Academic Freedom and Responsibility of the University Administration

  1. The University is committed to recruiting, appointing, retaining and promoting faculty members by processes which are thorough, thoughtful, equitable, and in which the professional judgments of faculty members are of major importance.
  2. Administrative officers should actively foster within The University a climate favorable to freedom of teaching and research. In its pursuit of excellence, The University should reward its outstanding faculty members.
  3. The administration is responsible for enforcing all Board and campus policies applicable to faculty members. It is the duty of the administration–beginning with department heads, deans, and chief academic officers–to remove from the faculty any faculty member who has been found, through proper procedures, seriously derelict in his or her responsibilities as a member of the academic community.
  4. The Board requires that each campus and its constituent academic units develop appropriate policies and procedures necessary to implement the Board’s tenure policy. These campus and academic unit documents must be approved by the Board of Trustees in time for campus policies and procedures to be effective on 1 July 1999.


A. Definition of Tenure

Tenure is a principle that entitles a faculty member to continuation of his or her annual appointment until relinquishment or forfeiture of tenure or until termination of tenure for adequate cause, financial exigency, or academic program discontinuance. The burden of proof that tenure should be awarded rests with the faculty member. Tenure is acquired only by positive action of the Board of Trustees, and is awarded in a particular unit, department, school, college, or other department of a campus. The award of tenure shifts the burden of proof concerning the faculty member’s continuing appointment from the faculty member to The University.



The committee was composed of the following members:
President, John Dewey, Columbia University
Edwin R. A. Seligman, Chairman, Columbia University (Economics)
Richard T. Ely, University of Wisconsin (Economics)
Frank A. Fetter, Princeton University (Economics)
James P. Lichtenberger, University of Pennsylvania (Sociology)
Roscoe Pound, Harvard University (Law)
Ulysses G. Weatherly, Indiana University (Sociology)
J. Q. Dealey, Brown University (Political Science)
Henry W. Farnam, Yale University (Political Science)
Charles E. Bennett, Cornell University (Latin)
Edward C. Elliott, University of Wisconsin (Education)
Guy Stanton Ford, University of Minnesota (History)
Charles Atwood Kofoid, University of California (Zoology)
Arthur O. Lovejoy, Johns Hopkins University (Philosophy)
Frederick W. Padelford, University of Washington (English)
Howard C. Warren, Princeton University (Psychology)





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  • Dblake

    While I understand and appreciate the historical concept of tenure I truly believe it is time to do away with this dinosaur. While tenure allows faculty to express their opinions without fear of being silenced the current state of affairs allows faculty to engage in uncivil dialogue disguised as scholarly discussion. I have seen a faculty member write an alleged piece of scholarly work that was actually a thinly veiled attack of their management. Tenure is a fine idea when balanced with the need to conduct oneself as a professional and not hide behind tenure as a way to make outlandish accusations and statements.

  • Ktagawa

    Hi, David: Thanks for writing.

    I certainly can appreciate the frustration of having faculty who skirt the edges of civility if not outright violate any sense of decorum and professionalism. I once had received a query regarding the appropriateness of a faculty member who included pornography in his German literature lectures, and had done so stating this was his right to do so as an faculty member. Was this an essential expression of academic freedom? What the inclusion of the material essential to the lecture or course? I wasn’t there – didn’t take the course so I don’t have firsthand knowledge. But there are policies within institutions that speak to the responsibilities of faculty.

    See the University of Tennessee statement above:

    4.A faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the subject, but the faculty member should use care in expressing personal views in the classroom and should be careful not to introduce controversial matters that have no relation to the subject taught…

    If the material were not essential, I would argue that it should be excluded.

    My view is to deal with the faculty member and that institutions have the means to do so. Should we throw out the political process because a few politicians are unethical?

    I’d be interested in hearing more about what the faculty member you referred to had written. My best, Ken