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Recently, a full professor at my university lost their tenure and had their employment with the university terminated. I have never heard of a tenured faculty member "being fired" before. I am not sure why this happened or what the former professor did that resulted in this outcome.

I know that assistant professors can be denied tenure for poor performance. But for what reasons might a full professor (or an associate professor) lose tenure?

(In this question I use US-centric academic ranks. An assistant professor is tenure-track, an associate professor is tenured, and a full professor is tenured with a slight increase in pay/benefits/responsibilities.)

  • Given your final note, I've added the US tag because it's probably not possible to give a general answer (in some countries revoke of tenure may be subjected to local laws). – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '18 at 16:35
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    Anyway, serious misconducts like fraud or harassment may cause such outcome. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '18 at 16:38
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    If you work at the University of Wisconsin, you can loose tenure for about anything (and it's in the laws now)... – xuq01 Nov 6 '18 at 8:57
  • You use US-centric position names, sure. But is your question entirely about the US? Exactly what "tenure" means surely differs from country to country; some places, such as the UK, have no concept of tenure at all. If you're asking about the whole world, this is surely too broad. – David Richerby Nov 6 '18 at 14:19
  • Just for accuracy, you can be associate without tenure, but the requirements for tenure as associate are different (harder), so people usually get tenured then bumped to associate in one swoop. – Fábio Dias Dec 4 '18 at 0:38
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The details are likely institution (and or state) specific.

From the University of New Mexico Faculty Handbook one sees that the options there are:

  1. "Adequate Cause", including academic incompetence, neglect of duty, serious violation of policy, serious crime, loss of license (medical), or other serious deficiency.

  2. Financial emergency - that is, the university runs out of money to pay them.

  3. Termination of the program/department.

  4. Health reasons (permanent disability with no reasonable accommodation possible).

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    Note that financial emergency isn't a true dismissal, but a furlough. The university has to hire back furloughed faculty before anybody else. This is true in most places, and is also affected by collective bargaining agreements (unions). – user71659 Nov 5 '18 at 18:27
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    @user71659 - For sure, but if a college shuts down (perhaps unlikely for a state school) there is not chance to be rehired. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '18 at 18:40
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    It's an important protection to prevent the case where they want to fire somebody, so the Dean withholds 1 FTE's worth of money to the department, and oops, financial emergency. – user71659 Nov 6 '18 at 0:24
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    Is seducing the students included in point 1? – RedSonja Nov 6 '18 at 7:36
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    @user71659 - Note that tuition and fees are not allocated by the state. – Jon Custer Nov 6 '18 at 18:58
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Even tenured professors are required to adhere to a certain level of standards. They are given academic freedoms, but not complete freedoms.

Committing a felony could in many cases lead to your dismissal, regardless of if you have tenure or not. Rape, murder, sexual assault, multiple DUIs, etc. all could result in being fired (even if you have tenure).

Committing fraud with department/grant money would also likely lead to being dismissed.

  • I heard about a professor back in the 1990s that defrauded his postdocs out of money (he told them they had to deposit their wages into his account, and he will pay them, and in the process he cut himself some of the money). The university caught up to him at some point, and they told him that they will let him keep the money if he resigns quietly and never comes back. Or something like that. Not exactly getting fired, but close enough, and I guess a lot of headache saved for the department in terms of de-tenure process being skipped. – Ink blot Nov 6 '18 at 12:01
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Traditionally, tenured faculty can only be dismissed on non-academic grounds, such as the reasons discussed in @Vladhagen's answer.

But that is not the reality everywhere. Universities that have a post-tenure review (at least in some cases) reserve the right to dismiss faculty if, say, their research output slows down too much. See, for example, the post-tenure review policy at University of Colorado: "Possible sanctions include...revocation of tenure and dismissal."

0

When a professor receives tenure, it means that s/he may not "let go" in order to be replaced by the university by another individual, even if younger or "cheaper." Thus, a tenured professor may be terminated only for "standalone" reasons.

  1. Financial reasons leading to the discontinuation of the professor's department or at least courses, without the possibility of the professor's reasonably being transferred to a new department or courses; one or more positions was eliminated and not replaced.

  2. Violation of academic or legal standards against plagiarism, sexual harassment, drug use or commission of other civil crimes, usually felonies, such as fraud or assault. These are typically violations of university policy as well as civil law.

  3. Possibly minor "violations" that go to the heart of the academic experience, such as repeatedly not showing up for class, and teaching far fewer hours than courses require.

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