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What is tenure, and why do college professors get it? Here’s what you need to know.

Professors, students, alumni, journalists, professional athletes, artists and and political activists are outraged over Nikole Hannah-Jones not receiving tenure with her appointment to UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty.

And now, the decision is back in the hands of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees and she’s considering legal action.

Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist for The New York Times who’s won a Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur “Genius Grant” during her nearly 20-year career. She’s joining UNC-CH this summer as the Knight Chair of Race and Investigative Journalism, a position designed to bring industry professionals into academia that typically comes with tenure.

So, what is tenure and why do professors get it? Here’s what UNC-CH Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman and Hans-Joerg Tiede, director of research at the American Association of University Professors, have to say.

What is tenure?

Tenure is essentially lifetime job security at a university. It guarantees distinguished professors academic freedom and freedom of speech by protecting them from being fired no matter how controversial or nontraditional their research, publications or ideas are.

Why do faculty members get tenure?

The purpose of tenure is really to insulate faculty members from dismissal because of their political activities, research, teaching or participation in the governance of the institution, said Tiede, a former professor of computer science.

Tenure prevents a governing board, politicians or university donors from interfering with academic freedom, he said.

Professors investigate controversial issues and have complicated conversations in the classroom that can offend people with certain views. Their jobs could be at risk if those people have power or influence at a university.

“If we want professors to do this kind of work they need to be protected,” Tiede said.

The case of UNC-CH illustrates that governing boards at times make personnel decisions that appear to be based on considerations that violate academic freedom, he said.

“There are clearly concerns that the reason is her involvement with The 1619 Project and if that’s the case, that would be exactly the kind of reason that tenure protects faculty members,” Tiede said.

Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her essay in The 1619 Project, which The New York Times published in August 2019. “It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project states.

Do all professors have tenure?

No.

Only about 1 in 5 faculty members in the academic labor force are tenured, and the percentage is declining, according to the AAUP.

At UNC-CH, about 35% of faculty have tenure, according to university records.

There are typically two employment options for full-time university professors: tenure-track and fixed-term, said Chapman, associate dean for doctoral education at the UNC School of Social Work.

With a fixed-term contract, a professor is hired for a certain number of years and that contract can be renegotiated. Chapman said those professors usually aren’t working toward tenure at all and might want to focus more on teaching. She said the track a professor is on is not necessarily a measure of quality.

Is tenure for faculty at both private and public universities?

Yes. However, some colleges and universities and community colleges don’t offer tenured positions.

How does one get tenure?

The typical path starts as soon as the person is hired, Chapman said. Tenure-track professors start working to get tenure the moment they get to the university and the stakes are “incredibly high,” she said.

To get tenure, a professor puts together a packet or dossier that includes the following:

CV or resume with qualifications;

examples of their work (journal articles, chapters from their book, products of scholarship);

an extensive personal statement that covers their research, approach to teaching, service activities and examines every domain of academic life; that’s about 10 pages.

It takes about a summer to get that together, said Chapman.

Once that file is collected, the academic department chair or dean sends it out for review around the country in the candidate’s field. A handful of people agree to assess the candidate’s fitness for tenure.

Those evaluations and the tenure packet are considered by full tenured professors in the school or department who vote on whether to advance the candidate to the next level. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, Chapman said, but a really divided vote can keep the candidate from progressing.

Then, generally, it goes to a campus-wide committee of 12 tenured faculty members. They come from a variety of departments and are elected to serve on the appointment, promotion and tenure committee for three-year terms.

That committee decides whether to advise the provost to award tenure to the professor. If more than a few people on the committee object it would stop there. Typically, all or nearly all of the members have to agree to move it forward.

The provost then sends the candidate’s name to the board of trustees university affairs committee, which vets the candidates on behalf of the board before the full board votes for final approval.

If a professor fails at any point in this process they have one more year to work at the institution and then they have to leave.

How long does it take to get tenure?

Typically, a tenure-track professor works five or six years in a probationary period before that professor is up for the appointment. The tenure approval process can take months.

Can a tenured professor get fired or lose tenure?

Yes, but only under very specific circumstances.

Tiede said tenured professors can be fired for just cause, which is primarily for misconduct, a school’s financial circumstances or if a department is eliminated.

The quality of a professor’s work as a cause for dismissal would need to rise to a level of neglect of duty or professional incompetence, Tiede said.

Do other professions have protections like tenure?

Professors need tenure because of the nature of their work, Tiede said.

Another example are federal judges who have lifetime appointments to insulate them from politicians and public officials because of their specific job functions, Tiede said.

And while it’s not completely the same, physicians and lawyers are protected by very specific policies and procedures related to being disbarred or losing their medical licenses.

What’s the argument against tenure?

In some states, legislators have proposed laws to abolish or restrict tenure.

Some critics say other jobs don’t give these protections or lifetime job security, so professors shouldn’t have them either. And others express concerns that the quality of teaching, workload and performance decrease because professors aren’t worried about losing their job.

Iowa lawmakers have also cited campus bias against conservative students.

It’s also more expensive for universities to pay for tenured professors than for those with fixed-term contracts because tenure is a lifetime appointment.

How and why did tenure begin?

The AAUP worked to formalize the idea of tenure when it was founded in 1915. Tenure in higher education as it stands today began with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was formulated and endorsed by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, according to the AAUP.

It became universal in the 1950s and ‘60s, according to Tiede.

Tiede explained that early cases where tenure was needed primarily involved social scientists wanting to speak out on issues of that time. One famous example is economist and educator Scott Nearing who was fired by the University of Pennsylvania Trustees in 1915 for advocating against child labor.

Another famous case was in the late 1960s when then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan sought to have Angela Davis fired from the University of California, Los Angeles because she was a member of the Communist Party and was advocating for African-American liberation, Teide said. In that case the AAUP investigated the situation and censured the university.

More recently, Steven G. Salaita’s tenured-faculty appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was withdrawn by trustees after he tweeted controversial takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about five years ago.

At the core, tenure was created to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech for professors.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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