Take the 2-minute tour ×
Academia Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for academics and those enrolled in higher education. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Coming from France, where any official academic position (i.e. ass. professor or full professor, or equivalent positions at public research institutes) is a civil-servant one, and therefore automatically for life, I've been always intrigued by the "tenure" system in the US.

While reading the Wikipedia article, I spotted the following paragraph:

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.

Does this kind of elimination/downsizing occur a lot in practice? Is it possible to "cheat" and to pretend to cut a position in order to save money just to get rid of a tenured professor? Are there some laws stating that if a position is cut, then another equivalent one cannot be created right after?

share|improve this question
Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and Timothy Leary were Harvard psychology professors which were fired from Tenure due to giving shrooms to undergraduates and doing illegal drug research. –  Samuel Reid Jun 3 '12 at 21:19
Personally, I'd avoid the abbreviation "ass. professor" - that might be considered rude if one doesn't see the dot at first glance. :) –  Federico Poloni Nov 28 '12 at 21:47
@SamuelReid ironic, that seems exactly the thing that tenure was invented to avoid: quoting Wikipedia, *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. [...] 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. –  Federico Poloni Nov 28 '12 at 21:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I haven't seen any statistics on how many tenure professors have been fired, but most articles on the topic treat tenure as though it's a lifetime position (e.g., this Science article, "Tenure and the Future of the University"). Anecdotally, you will likely never meet someone who knows someone else who was fired from a tenure position; it simply doesn't happen.

Note, however, that the number of tenure track positions made available over the past decade been trending downward fairly significantly (see the same article, and simply do a google search on the topic to see more).

share|improve this answer
Thanks for the link to the Science article, it indeed seems that tenure is really considered as for-life position. –  Charles Morisset Feb 17 '12 at 9:30
I know someone who was forcefully encouraged to resign from a tenured position. They stepped down rather than going through the many-months-long process of having their tenure revoked. –  JeffE Mar 8 '12 at 17:48

It does happen occasionally that entire departments are shut down. An example I remember being in the news a lot was several language departments at SUNY Albany. But it's an extreme measure and even with the current severe economic situation it did not happen very often.

share|improve this answer

In practice, a tenured appointment is one of the safest job positions out there. Essentially, the number of things which can get a tenured professor "sacked" are exceedingly small, and most of these involve criminal actions. (Even in such cases, the university tends to pressure resignations rather than try to fire them, as has happened, for instance, in high-profile cases at Harvard and Yale.)

Outside of that, you need the aforementioned budget catastrophes that lead to elimination of entire departments. Even then, sometimes departments are allowed to "decay" rather than get eliminated—current staff stays as the department gets wound down, without new hires and additional support.

share|improve this answer
Wow, if even the cases of Harvard and Yale are not enough to even start a revocation process, I'm wondering what could! Thanks for the links :) –  Charles Morisset Feb 17 '12 at 9:33

Even if you don't get fired, the department can still make you miserable enough to want to leave. Tenure contracts often only guarantee a small salary, say 50% of the base salary when you were originally hired. Years later, that could be a pittance due to inflation.

Your department could tell you that your research isn't important or significant, and they could require you to do more teaching and service on committees, leaving you very little time to do any research. You could lose your lab space or access to shared equipment. You might not be allowed to take on new students or to hire technicians.

So you'll want to leave, even if they can't officially fire you. You can read some horror stories on this website.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.