Suppose I used to hold a tenure-track math position at a R1 institution, but then I was denied tenure. Assume I do not care about job security (and never cared) and I would be more than happy to keep working under the same conditions and would work just as hard as I worked before tenure denial. The question is: what are the reasons why the department would not be happy to keep me (under the same conditions)?

Some hypotheses:

  • Me working at the department is beneficial for the department at any given point of time. If this is true, then they should be OK with me remaining in my present position.
  • Accepting someone for tenure-track is a calculated risk the department takes (because it can not judge purely from the post-doc record whether one is going to be a great researcher or not). Now that my tenure-track is over, they have figured out that I am not good enough and it is beneficial for them to kick me out.
  • For an average person, the possibility of tenure is a strong motivator. It is beneficial for the department to have someone who has been promised tenure at any given point of time but it is not beneficial once the person knows they won't be given tenure. I am just a weirdo who happens not to care.
  • 1
    I think the answer is the second hypothesis, but I will leave it to one of the more senior faculty here to weigh in... – Dawn Apr 13 '19 at 0:42
  • 2
    In the situation you described, even if the department were happy to keep you as an untenured faculty member, they couldn't do so. In my university, the Regents' Bylaws say that, if we kept a tenure-track assistant professor in that position longer than 7 years, then (s)he would automatically have tenure, whether or not tenure was "awarded". (Department and college administrators whose negligence led to such "de facto tenure" would be in very hot water.) – Andreas Blass Apr 13 '19 at 0:58
  • 21
    I think you're missing opportunity cost. Suppose they had a choice between keeping you at your current salary, and firing you and hiring someone new at the same salary (or likely less). You've already demonstrated that you do not meet the standards expected of a tenured faculty member. The new person might eventually do so. Doesn't that seem like an easy decision? – Nate Eldredge Apr 13 '19 at 1:25
  • 7
    Just out of curiosity, you were an assistant professor in math at Harvard and this is an honest question you had? – user2705196 Apr 13 '19 at 4:11
  • 5
    There's a paradox here. Quoting: "Assume I do not care about job security (and never cared)" and "why the department would not be happy to keep me". – Szabolcs Apr 13 '19 at 9:26

In most jobs in industry, new employees go through a probationary period during which they can be let go (fired) for poor performance without the protections and benefits that more experienced employees might get. If a new employee isn't working out, then they'll be let go during this probationary period.

In higher education in the US, the (customarily at most 7 years long) tenure track is an extremely long probationary period tied with policies that (in the name of academic freedom) give tenured faculty very strong protection against being fired or laid off.

When a tenure-track professor is denied tenure, the university has decided that they're not doing well enough in the job to justify a lifetime commitment from the institution. There are significant costs associated with recruiting a replacement, as well as significant consequences for the morale of other junior faculty, so these decisions aren't made lightly.

Allowing a tenure track faculty member to continue as non-tenured faculty member after you've denied them tenure has problems. In addition to lowering the morale of other tenured and tenure-track faculty, it runs afoul of the guidelines for tenure promulgated by the American Association of Union Professors (AAUP) that say that tenure must be granted after seven years of service.

It should be noted that the tenure system is in a significant decline in the US. More and more, teaching and research work is being done by people in non-tenure-track positions and the number of tenured faculty is declining.

  • 2
    thank you for your answer. So the answer is essentially "There is pressure from the society to give tenure to people who have worked for the department for 7 years." Do I understand correctly? – bye_bye_harvard Apr 13 '19 at 1:04
  • 2
    The tenure system is something that was created and maintained by universities and their faculty. I don’t think that the rest of society has had much to say about it, although some politicians have certainly argued that it should be abolished. – Brian Borchers Apr 13 '19 at 1:26
  • I interpret this as "At some universities, local employment laws and/or university policies require giving tenure to anyone who works for the university for 7 years." – JeffE Apr 13 '19 at 14:06

It is a strategy to avoid the Peter Principle, similar to the military's up-or-out policy.

In particular, there are only so many slots for professors (tenured or otherwise). They want to allocate those slots to the best candidates as possible. Mathematically, there is some quality threshold Q', and they want to give only to candidates with Q > Q'. Now if your Q is less than Q', letting you go will allow them to bring in someone else whose quality may be greater than Q', which improves the department (or your replacement may also have Q < Q', in which case they'll get let go also and try again). In other words -- by not offering tenure, the university is taking the gamble that they can find someone better to fill the spot long-term.

Further, I suspect it is also true that Q is not static, but changes (decreases) after a tenure decision is made.


There might be exceptions to this but in general universities have rules that faculty can only be employed without tenure for a number of years, so you can only stay for so long after being denied tenure.

It is also true that many times the denial of tenure is not meant to "fire" you, but to say "you are not ready". I know several cases where the denial of tenure included "you are not ready" language, and clearly implied that the candidate would apply for tenure again.

As others have mentioned, these decisions are not taken lightly, and there are usually avenues for appeal.

  • the candidate would apply for tenure again — In most American universities, a candidate can only apply for tenure again if the first application for tenure was early—at least a year before the (usually 6th year) deadline— and early tenure applications are discouraged and rare. – JeffE Apr 13 '19 at 14:10
  • I don't doubt that's the case. But I also know several where it is fairly standard to apply for tenure by the fourth year, and the rules allow for six. – Martin Argerami Apr 13 '19 at 14:56

It benefits the department to have more tenured faculty. The dean cares about nothing except the budget, and wishes the entire faculty were adjuncts. I know of a case where the dean, who was trained as an engineer, decided that the only useful math was applied math and decimated the math department, which then created a war between the math department and the dean, who then re-decimated the department. Half the math faculty were tenured, and that was the only way a (sort of) viable math department survived.

The war on tenure has been brutal, and we're losing. If your department kept you, that's another foot of lost ground.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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