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Defining Tenure

Matthew C. Cordon
Director of Legal Research, Associate Director of the Law Library, and Professor of Law
Chair, Baylor University Faculty Senate, 2007-08

Recent news stories about the denial of tenure to a high percentage of Baylor University faculty members have to some degree renewed discussion about the place and importance of tenure in university life. Questions about tenure from those outside of the academic environment are certainly understandable, for the system has few analogies outside of the academic context. Those engaged in academic life as members of a faculty, however, understand the essential purposes of having such a system, especially the need to protect academic freedom.

Universities thrive through the free exchange of ideas and in fact provide a proverbial marketplace for these ideas. A university requires diverse viewpoints to foster a culture where these ideas can be explored unreservedly. The idea of academic freedom in a university promotes this need to allow a free flow of ideas, and universities as a general principle adopt policies that guarantee, within some parameters, that faculty will enjoy academic freedom at those institutions. The academic freedom concept is almost universally accepted in the academy and encapsulated in the 1940 “Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure,” approved by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and which has been adopted by more than 100 academic and professional organizations. It reads, in part:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher and of the student in freedom in learning.

The National Education Association has further explained the importance of academic freedom in the university environment:

Academic freedom also includes the rights of scholars to publish freely the results of their research, to retain the rights to their intellectual property, to participate in the governance of the institution, to advance in their profession without fear of discrimination and, when necessary, to criticize administrators, trustees, and other public officials without recrimination. College and university faculty and staff have the right to assist colleagues whose academic freedom and professional rights have been violated. Tenure, academic due process, and faculty self-governance promote stability, continuity, and a scholarly environment on campus.

Tenure itself provides a lifetime guarantee of continued employment to those who have earned the distinction. At Baylor and most other institutions, faculty members on the tenure track must prove their value during a six-year probationary period. Tenure-track faculty members are required to show excellence in the area of teaching, research, service, and collegiality. Those on the tenure track are evaluated and eventually judged by their colleagues on several different levels before their six-year records are finally reviewed by a university-wide tenure committee, which makes the final faculty recommendations for whether tenure candidates should receive tenure. These recommendations are then sent to the final decision-maker, which in the case of Baylor, is the president of the university. Where the university denies tenure to a faculty member, the results are harsh: the faculty member is given a one-year contract, after which time the faculty member is dismissed from the university.

Tenure decisions are typically reserved for the faculty to make, and even where an administrator or administrative body makes the final decision, the faculty’s judgment is given significant deference. According to the AAUP, “[the] president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.”

Once a faculty member has earned and been awarded tenure, the university cannot terminate the faculty member without cause, such as committing a crime or engaging in academic fraud. In some rare instances, a university may discharge faculty members due to financial constraints. As a general matter, it is highly unusual for a faculty member to be discharged once the university grants tenure. Tenured faculty members do not, however, continue without expectations; with regard to quality (and often quantity) of teaching and with regard to their scholarly output, tenured faculty members are continually evaluated based on their productivity. The essence of tenure is that these faculty members can continue to be productive without fear of retribution for espousing or otherwise discussing unpopular ideas.

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