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Tenured professors can be fired for a variety of reasons, the most common being incompetence, negligence, immoral/personal conduct, and financial exigency.

Several questions:

  1. Do these four reasons also apply to firing endowed professors? I'm guessing financial exigency does not apply because the endowment covers the costs. The other three I am not sure about, since presumably the endowed professor doesn't have formal responsibilities (again since the endowment removes the need to teach/supervise/etc).
  2. Between the donor, the department, and the university, which of the three sets the rules? For example, can the donor say "we require our endowed professor to do good research, and are opposed to termination for any reason as long as he/she is doing good research"? (I note King George V felt something similar about the Victoria Cross)
  3. If the endowed professor can be and is fired, does the search for the next professor start immediately, following the standard process? I'm guessing yes since I don't see any reason why not.
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    I guess this is going to ultimately come down to the specifics of the legal framework (endowment, employment contract, etc) in any given case. However, I think the usual(?) setup is that the endowment is an agreement between donor and university, and then a particular individual is hired on terms agreed between the university and themselves. This latter agreement needs to be compatible with the terms of endowment, but not necessarily identical. Thus the employment is likely to be subject to standard expectations of behaviour etc, unless these were specifically excluded in the endowment deed.
    – avid
    Aug 26, 2021 at 12:26
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    Actually, someone could still lose their endowed position for financial reasons. Some departments and even universities are closed down. An endowed chair of buggy-whip manufacture will have no position, I'd assume. An endowment could also be ended due to poor management of the funds, but the professor's position would, almost certainly, continue if tenured. Unless there were other reasons including financial ones.
    – Buffy
    Aug 26, 2021 at 13:01

2 Answers 2

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There is no legal difference between a tenured professor and a tenured professor holding an endowed position. The latter is mostly a honorific, and in practice just means that they receive the proceeds of an endowment as part of their salary or for research purposes. As a consequence, there are really no legal aspects that would make a difference.

Some of the other premises in the question are also questionable. First, endowments do not have to be large. They can be $100,000 and yield $5,000 per year for research purposes. If the university is in financial trouble, then this endowment isn't going to save the professor: The university is still paying all or nearly all of that person's salary.

Second, not every endowed professorship is directly related to a person or entity that has an interest in who actually holds the chair. It may be that the money was given 50 years ago by someone who is long dead, or that someone gave the money to honor the legacy of someone who is long dead, but who doesn't actually have any connection to the field in which the chair is. Or it may be an entity that for whatever reason really doesn't want to be involved in telling the university what to do with the money (think about the regius professorships).

Finally, would the chair search start immediately? Who knows. If the university is in financial trouble, it may not be able to afford hiring someone right away. In that case, the position would simply be unfilled for a while. If there is a search, in all cases I am familiar with, the stipulations of the endowment make it clear that the entity in charge of finding and hiring candidates is the university or the department, not the entity that endowed the position. You cannot buy a position for a friend of yours by creating an endowment -- no university would accept such a situation. It will often happen that the university or department informs the donor if they have come to a conclusion about who they would like to hire, but it will not accept being told who to hire, nor offer the donor the right to veto.

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From what I’ve seen in my old field…

As to your point 1, there isn’t a change in responsibilities. Endowed chairs teach, supervise, and research; it’s a honorific. So your premise is a bit shaky. As to 2, once the chair is established, appointment, etc, is handled by the department. I’m not familiar with special cases; it is conceivable that the donating entity/person suggests a first recipient. As to 3, there isn’t a search in the sense the term is usually employed. Endowed chairs (tend to) go to tenured faculty at the department.

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    I doubt any university would agree to the suggested stipulation in #2. It would be completely foolish to do so - obviously so. Possibly illegal.
    – Buffy
    Aug 26, 2021 at 11:10
  • @Buffy Why on Earth would it be illegal for a university to agree to not fire somebody?
    – nick012000
    Aug 26, 2021 at 11:26
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    @nick012000, because there are labor laws in general. Would you need to keep a rapist, for example, on the payroll? A murderer? But IANAL, so just speculating.
    – Buffy
    Aug 26, 2021 at 12:08
  • @nick012000 For the same reason why a kindergarten will not be able to keep someone in employment if they have been convicted of child molestation. You just can't make the promise to not fire someone. Aug 26, 2021 at 16:01
  • @WolfgangBangerth I don't think you need a Working With Children card to work at a university unless your research involves interacting with children (e.g. primary/secondary education or child psychology). That's completely different to working at a primary school.
    – nick012000
    Aug 26, 2021 at 16:05

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