People are interested in tenured positions to have a secured job, as they do not need to worry about their contracts. Tenured position gives a professor security that s/he cannot get fired easily (e.g., simply not renewing his/her contract). But, what is the actual obligation for the professors? In return, what is the motivation for a university to offer tenured position, which is accompanied by less flexibility from HR point of view.

Apparently, tenure is just for the sake of academic freedom, and has no real benefit for the institution, except a one-way service to professors (probably satisfying more applicants). Am I right? Then, a university must prefer not to offer tenured positions at all, as HR has more freedom with non-tenured positions.

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    As a parent I would not send my child to a school that did not offer academic freedom to those teaching so there is certainly some benefit to the school.
    – earthling
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 5:31
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    Providing job security in the form of tenure also means that universities have to pay less. If you look at comparable research jobs that are similarly competitive, but don't have tenure (industrial research labs), salaries are higher.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 14:05
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    @Aaron: That's an apples-oranges comparison. Jobs in academia and industry differ in many other ways besides tenure.
    – user1482
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 15:37
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    I doubt that this question has a generic answer that applies to both research institutions and non-research schools such as community colleges. At a community college, the reason that tenure exists is probably some combination of (1) unionization, (2) tradition, and (3) imitating research universities.
    – user1482
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 15:40
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    @BenCrowell At research labs like Microsoft Research, the distinction is pretty minimal -- the biggest difference is that MSR researchers have no teaching responsibilities. Other than that, they spend their time doing the same thing CS professors at R1 universities do: conducting research and publishing papers, attending and organizing conferences, giving talks, etc. Tenured faculty move routinely from academia to these research labs, and back.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 21:04

7 Answers 7


Institutions offer tenure, not (just) because of high-minded abstractions like "academic freedom", but because it makes good business sense. The benefit of tenure to the institution follows from the benefit to the individual:

  • From the faculty member's perspective, tenure makes it possible to pursue high-risk/high-impact research ideas without having to worry about having to keep short-term bean-counters happy.

  • This makes institutions that offer tenure more attractive to strong researchers because those researchers want an environment that best supports their ability to pursue their research ideas.

  • Such researchers, in turn, are very often also the ones who bring in the big grants. Their high visibility also enhances the reputation of the institution, which attracts more students and alumni donations, etc. etc.

For these reasons, given two otherwise-identical institutions where one offered tenure and the other didn't, the one without tenure would find itself at a significant competitive disadvantage.

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    It is certainly the case that very strong institutions would not be able to attract the talent they do at the wage they offer without the added incentive of tenure. "Average" professors may be replaceable, but the truly exceptional are hard to replace, although they would have many other job options besides academia. Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 1:51

I think you might be misunderstanding the purpose of tenure. While your view from the teacher's side might be correct (wanting to avoid worrying about contract renewal) the purpose for a school to offer tenure is supposed to be putting an educator in a position where he/she can teach whatever they feel is best without worrying about being fired if the school doesn't think it politically appropriate. For example, if someone was teaching about communism during the 1960's in the US, the school might want to fire that teacher. Tenure shows that the school believes in scholarship over politics.

As a side note, recent studies show that this is not at all what happens. Students learn more from non-tenured teachers than tenured ones.

As to your question, the responsibilities are the same as any other professional position - do your job. You certainly can leave if you find better opportunities - it's not a prison, it's a job.

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    "Students learn more from non-tenured teachers than tenured ones." [citation needed]
    – wsc
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 2:21
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    "found that the gains are greatest for the students with the weakest academic preparation." This explains quite a lot, doesn't it?
    – fedja
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 19:28
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    I didn't read carefully enough to form a legitimate basis to question that study, but the combination of a university president and management consultant on the author list of a study that subtly advocates increasing the share of adjunct faculty literally made me a little queasy.
    – wsc
    Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 3:24
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    @earthling Good point. My impression (from my own teaching and from classes I attended) is that a tenured guy like me adjusts the material and the level of presentation to the top third of the class while a non-tenured one aims way lower. Neither strategy is perfect. The top students learn more from me (though still get worse grades and tougher life) and the bottom students have much better chance to learn basic skills they are missing from my non-tenured colleague. The real problem is not tenure vs. non-tenure (either of us can use the other's approach) but the terrible spread in one class.
    – fedja
    Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 18:02
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    @wsc Is it really all that surprising that people who teach 3-5 large classes a semester teach large classes better (I'm almost certain this is the study's metric for "teaching") then people who spend a lot their time advising students, doing independent research, giving research talks, and teaching specialized material to advanced students?
    – PVAL
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 20:03

I think there are some odd accidental assumptions in the question. For the U.S. system, although there is substantial drift in the last 10 years, the idea was not only that people should teach what their best judgement indicated, without worry of censure or loss-of-job, but that also their research/scholarship should reflect best-understanding rather than politics... especially given the transience and partisanship of politics.

There is also the idea that in otherwise-profitable enterprises people might not want to put any effort into teaching at all, thus not want to participate in a "university" (with students), without an otherwise-extraordinary promise of more-or-less-endless job security. Some smart, able people, not terribly interested in money, beyond a certain point, can be ensnared by the "care-free" aspect of a tenured faculty position.

"Even" in the U.S., in recent years there has been a push to "contract" faculty positions, indeed. In happy times, these seem to be no worse than tenured positions. However, obviously, in the next economic downturn the administration will have the easy option of terminating as many contract employees as seems convenient.

Yes, this is part of the increased corporatization of U.S. (and other) colleges and universities. Of course, we should understand that we are at the end of a sort of "golden age" between the pre-WWI times that only the upper-classes' children "went to college", apart from seminary students, and after the post-WWII time where the "GI Bill" financed returning veterans' college educations to avoid flooding the job market... which was already in disarray after all the women who'd been "allowed" to work in factory jobs and such in wartime were expected (or forced) to quit and "go home"... so there was an artificial surge both in the numbers of college enrollments and in the socio-economic goals.

And more complications currently...


One more point is that tenure per se is a huge perk which lets the universities get away with the salaries considerably lower than in the industry and keep many smart people nevertheless, at least in the fields where leaving academe for industry is an option.


If I understand the question you're asking, there is no obligation for a tenured professor to remain at the institution that gave him or her tenure. Professors changing institutions happens quite frequently. In many cases, such moves occur because of career advancement—for instance, one might be offered a position in the university administration (chair, dean, or provost, for example).

However, in such cases, the professor typically has the obligation of "winding down" her group at the old institution "gracefully." Usually, that means that the advisor is still responsible for supervising any students that chose not to move with the professor. In some cases, depending on location, there may be teaching duties leftover—for instance, a tenured professor left my university here in Germany not too long ago to take a position in another country. He still had to return once a week for an entire year to fulfill the teaching obligations he had under German law. (Professors' minimum teaching loads are regulated in Germany.)


Just to add an international perspective: In Denmark (and some other, especially Northern, European countries), tenure is not unique to academia. Here an employer is obligated to offer you a permanent contract after three years or discontinue your employment; academia operates on this general principle. "Tenured" faculty here have permanent contracts just like someone working in any other field, as opposed to the fixed-term contracts held by postdocs, assistant professors, and temporary employees elsewhere in the marketplace. So, at least in some countries, tenure is a general workplace guarantee, not something special to university faculty.

  • In the U.S., getting tenure is often compared to "getting a union card" in that the job security of tenure is generally comparable to the job security of being in a unionized position, even though faculty in the U.S. are often not unionized. Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 1:54

Given the relative two fisted brutality of the unitary Australian system in industrial relations terms on the average (as opposed to "appointed") academic staff; and the early death of "tenure" in Australian contexts:

  • The only limitation on institutions offering positions is industrial
  • We can see this in field specific peaks of casually taught classes reaching 80%
  • And society wide casualisation of about 50%
  • Academics have incredibly low rates of militancy in the face of massive erosion of work conditions
  • "Research," the unique product of on-going appointments in Australia, has consistently been treated by institutions as a "Luxury" product (AUR reports on cross subsidisation of research by teaching).
  • Employer preference is the only basis on which any on-going positions exist, and this seems to be directly related to either Degree program related academic administration ("Who's in charge of the BA's pedagogy?") or to inter-Employer status game ("We have 100 more HERDC points than you, and are therefore a better university").

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