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Coming from France, where any official academic position (i.e. associate 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?

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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
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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
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@FedericoPoloni I think the problem was that it was illegal. Doing "controversial research" is one thing, risking your student's health is another. –  Davidmh Aug 3 at 11:51

5 Answers 5

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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).

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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
    
What kind of circumstances were behind this "encouragement"? –  finitud Aug 3 at 12:10

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.

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This happened at Univ of Florida as well. They abolished departments to mass fire profs, and rehired some of them later. –  Memming Oct 4 at 16:30

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.

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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.

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I've seen one case that almost led to firing a tenured faculty member. The university had found him guilty of misconduct and tried to get him to resign; as far as I can tell this involved incentives more than threats. But when that approach failed, the university began proceedings to revoke his tenure and fire him. The "definition" of tenure at my university amounts to specifying what those procedures must include, and they make the the process so cumbersome that no one would want to invoke them except in extreme cases. In this case, the person finally reached an agreement with the university and resigned, on the day that the Board of Regents was to meet to revoke his tenure. Even so, he apparently got come concessions from the university. In particular, a short time later, the people involved in the tenure revocation hearings, even those like me who were only indirectly involved, were informed by the university's lawyers that, under the resignation agreement, we are not allowed to divulge who this person is. As far as I know, that gag order is still in force.

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