When Can a Tenured Faculty Member Be Fired During the New McCarthyism

Revised: February 2011

According to the American Association of University Professors, tenure can only be revoked for cause. The following areas may be grounds to revoke the continuous tenure of an academician. However, the presumption is that tenure is continuous and that it confers an obligation on an institution to issue annual or other contractual instruments until retirement. Since there is no longer mandatory retirement, a tenured faculty member is not required to surrender her or his position due to age. Under the image, are the general areas in which there may be tenure revocation:

Incompetence: A determination that the individual is no longer capable of teaching for example. This, of course, would require significant peer and possibly medical documentation and the burden of proof would be considerable.

Non-performance of duties: There was a case when a tenured professor missed his classes and stated he was studying beach formations even though his field of study was not geology or a related physical science. One has to perform one’s contractual duties in the area of teaching, research and service. Yet to terminate tenure under this category, there has to be prolonged and comprehensive evidence of an individual simply not doing his or her job. Missing meetings or skipping commencement while hardly recommended are not grounds. Ditching classes due to reasons other than health, pressing personal and professional reasons could pose an issue if substantiated by fact.

Moral Turpitude: This has never been defined other than a vague inference that one knows it when the academic community in general would identify it. If a professor is dismissed for moral turpitude, the usual requirement for a year’s notice with pay could be circumvented. Presumably criminal conduct, selling grades, sex for grades, stealing university property, sexual harassment and conviction of a felony would be grounds for tenure revocation. When one gets into the area of research misconduct, the issue becomes murkier due to interpretation of data, the extent of the alleged misconduct and matching penalty to alleged scholarly misconduct. Plagiarism, for example, is an issue with potentially grave consequences.

Financial Exigency: A university or college that is facing grave financial challenges may terminate a tenured faculty member. Yet it has to be bona fide; it can’t be used as an excuse to fire a controversial faculty member. There has to be proof and transparency that an institution cannot afford to maintain a given professor’s position. In addition, every reasonable effort must be made to relocate the professor to another unit if he or she has competence in that area. Also if the financial exigency is resolved, dismissed tenured faculty are to offered opportunities for reinstatement.

Cancellation of Program or Department: This may happen without an institution-wide financial exigency. If this occurs, the university is obligated to relocate the professor into another programme or department if there is a reasonable expectation that the tenured faculty member can adapt and utilise her academic skills for a different position. Could an economist, whose department is being eliminated, teach in a business school or offer courses in economic history? Possibly. Could a dentist whose school is eliminated find a position somewhere else in the medical school? Probably not.

Institutional merger: Sometimes colleges or universities merge and there may be a reduction in force. Like the wonderful world of American capitalism, mergers and acquisitions may lead to reductions in a workforce.

The American Association of University Professors censured in spring 2006 several New Orleans-based universities for firing faculty members as a result of the hurricane named Katrina. The reasons for censure were because the tenured faculty eliminations appeared to be arbitrary with an absence of faculty input and consultation. Some of these schools used the Katrina disaster as an excuse to rid themselves of tenured faculty members that deserved protection and the opportunity to appeal and grieve their dismissals.

The revocation of tenure is a grave and serious act that should occur rarely and only under the general categories previously listed. Tenure is meant to protect academic freedom; tenure is meant to make teaching an attractive career and provide an administration with a stable work force; tenure is meant to improve the quality of higher education; tenure is the protector of an academician’s right to ask the tough questions, to teach in a creative manner, to do research on topics without fear of censorship. Tenure is meant to provide America a professorate that does not labour under “at will” servitude and does not have to be subservient to administrators or department chairs that may share different ethical and moral outlooks; it is intended to create an independent professorate that is not subject to the whims or ideologically crushing forces of conformity and persecution.

Tenure is not popular in the United States. The public perceives tenure as an excuse to perform at a level less than desirable and as a needless conferring of lifetime job security. For those who abuse tenure, there are so many more that utilise job security to enhance their teaching performance and contribute critical thinking to the public good. Without tenure, higher education in this country would be devastated. Academic freedom would be imperiled and the pursuit of the truth would be severely compromised. The growing numbers of adjunct and contingent faculty, relative to tenure-track positions, is a prima facie danger to tenure and academic freedom. Like abortion, it is being squeezed and marginalised bit by bit. Both are worth fighting for and defending!

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