I'm referring to an incident at Purdue. The head of the Purdue math department tried to pressure an older tenured faculty member to leave by setting his salary to 0 (among other things).

I actually don't understand how she had the authority to do this. Do department heads typically have control over everyone's salary? Why was he not allowed due process? If you are no longer performing your job, who is responsible for "firing" you?

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    p. 25 of web.math.princeton.edu/~cf/DonnellyAppendices.pdf suggests that the professor's salary was cut "by refusing to assign him teaching and then imposing “buyouts” for the teaching that has not been assigned", which, if accurate, sounds like an unreasonable policy.
    – Anyon
    Jan 21, 2023 at 15:01
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    Something that really surprises me is that the AMS accepted to publish such a letter, without the full picture. Jan 21, 2023 at 20:57
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    @MassimoOrtolano: The AMS asked the department for a response, and got empty words in return (see the letter just after Fefferman's). Quite possibly the administration is silent for legal reasons, but at this point there is no good reason not to publish the first letter (otherwise, every story could be spiked by one side remaining silent). Jan 22, 2023 at 23:42
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    FWIW, there is a slightly more substantial discussion on r/math. Jan 22, 2023 at 23:42
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    (2) Given that he's having so much trouble teaching Math 262, then why was he being required to teach ONLY Math 262? This seems to undermine the administration's arguments about his teaching of Math 262 and strongly suggests it's in response to to his current lackluster research and teaching, a response that could be argued as undermining the department's commitment to teaching. Jan 23, 2023 at 14:56

5 Answers 5


Very clearly, this is not common practice or we would all know such cases.

It is, then, an apparently exceptional case to which a university has applied exceptional measures. I don't know any of the specifics of the case, nor do I know any of the protagonists, and so have no opinion on the matter. At the same time, the concept of tenure leads to situations -- known to many who've been in academia for long enough -- where someone just doesn't care any more about doing a good job, and departments then have to think about what to do in such situations. These are personnel matters, lawyers are involved, privacy rights need to be considered, and as a consequence one almost never gets to hear the university's side of the story: What you hear about is the affected professor's side of the story, and that of colleagues who may or may not actually know the truth of the matter. I suspect that in the current case, nobody other than the professor and the department head know whether the person's salary really was set to zero: The professor can claim that it was, the department will not be able to comment on the matter, and everyone else should consider whether what they think they know is the actual truth. There is a lot of material in this file, but I don't think we should assume that everything in there is factually correct.

Fundamentally, though, the file linked to points out the sorts of problems departments face. Someone hasn't done research in a few years (no publications, and colleagues will generally know whether the person really did or didn't do anything research-related), hardly any service contributions to the department, and giving lectures that students loathe and (more importantly) that do not teach them what the general public that pays for the university needs them to learn. Just like any other employer, universities cannot tolerate this for very long. At least morally, while tenure is supposed to protect faculty from recriminations about speaking out, it isn't meant to protect faculty from just not doing their job; yet, tenure is something that makes it very difficult for universities to fire someone who isn't doing their job, and so they have to resort to uncommon measures like those mentioned in this case.

So no, this isn't common. Whether it's legal I don't know; whether it's actually true I also don't know. But situations like the one that appears to be at the heart of this case do happen on a regular basis, and universities have to come up with solutions.

There is another part of the question worth answering separately:

I actually don't understand how she had the authority to do this. Do department heads typically have control over everyone's salary? Why was he not allowed due process? If you are no longer performing your job, who is responsible for "firing" you?

First, the salary wasn't set to zero (if one were to believe the linked to files): The person was placed on unpaid leave. Second, the professor was afforded due process: The letters by the department head show that for a long time, he was placed on what is typically referred to as a "remediation process" whereby you are assisted in performing a number of steps that get you back into good standing (in his case, writing a syllabus, writing lecture notes, and writing a research plan); he just chose not to do it, or at least not to take it seriously. As for who is in charge of firing a professor: There is a process, called "post-tenure review", that is used to revoke someone's tenure; it usually takes several years and the university apparently did not want to take that long.

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    I doubt that "tapering off" research as one approaches retirement would be grounds for dismissal. More likely to get a bigger teaching/advising requirement.
    – Buffy
    Jan 21, 2023 at 20:35
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    @Buffy True, but what should a department do when someone is "tapering off" in research and at the same time also refuses to (or is unable to) be a reasonable teacher? The case that prompted the question isn't about someone's waning research productivity. Take a look at the documents linked to, it's actually quite an interesting (and rather sad) read. Jan 21, 2023 at 22:04
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    Re: Unknowability of whether the person's salary was set to zero -- the linked personnel file has a memo from the department head (Appendix 15, July 5, 2022) that says, "In short, you are not teaching in 2022/2023... Thus we cannot pay you. Starting with the Fall semester, your pay will be reduced to zero and you will be placed on unpaid personal leave." Unless we think that file was likely a forgery? But the response by the dean in the AMS doesn't suggest such a thing ("The College of Science regrets that Professor Fefferman chose to release incomplete confidential personnel files"). Jan 22, 2023 at 4:06
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    @DanielR.Collins Being placed on unpaid leave and having your salary set to zero are not the same thing. No university is going to pay someone for long, tenured or not, if they're not doing any teaching, not doing any research, and not doing any admin or service. If the faculty member were to resume teaching at an acceptable quality, presumably their pay would be restored to their former salary.
    – David
    Jan 23, 2023 at 4:43
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    @WolfgangBangerth Thank you for your answer. Your last paragraph basically explains that the premise the original question is wrong. The professors was given due process, but refused to work with his department to improve his course. Jan 23, 2023 at 14:24

No, it isn't "common" for a department head in the US to have such power, but it might be possible for them to (at least) start termination procedures for some faculty, especially untenured faculty. Starting the process for tenured faculty is probably also possible, though the process would be different. (I can't speak for other countries.)

I don't think that the faculty as a whole at any reputable US university would stand for a system in which anyone's salary could be adjusted downward by fiat. The revolt would echo across the nation, if not the world.

But, I think that claims are being made, not all accurate, and possibly not all honest.

For various reasons, a person could become incompetent to continue teaching; stroke, severe concussion.... A prominent person in my field was hit by a bus. He survived but was badly impaired. That would require some process to remove them from teaching to avoid damaging both the students and the university. Buyouts might be part of the offerings, but those would normally require acceptance. The level of buyout might be negotiated. "How about one year's salary in exchange for giving up tenure?" "Two years?".

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    Downward adjustments of salary are fairly common at my school (week, more accurately, one division of my school) for tenured profs who lose grant support. Jan 22, 2023 at 1:00
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    We can't know the full story from outside, but one possible explanation for the documentation that is publicly available (linked above) is not exactly that the professor has become incompetent to teach through a diminished capacity, but instead it might be that increased technological expectations have left this professor behind. The professor seems to be very knowledgable about mathematics and very naive about technology. Whether it is fair or reasonable for universities to expect all tenured faculty to keep up with technology is way over my head. Jan 22, 2023 at 3:35
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    @ScottSeidman, I would guess and hope that such things are spelled out in contracts.
    – Buffy
    Jan 22, 2023 at 17:01
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    @gnometorule I read all of it. I'm not convinced that any of it can be taken at face value. The student complaints seem serious to me, but I don't know the real story. Jan 23, 2023 at 1:23

Is it common for the head of a department to be able to reduce a tenured professors' salary to 0?

No, department heads do not have that kind of discretion anywhere as far as I know.

I actually don't understand how she had the authority to do this.

Charles Fefferman, the writer of the letter you are citing from, does not allege that she/he did, and it does not appear that this is what happened exactly. Fefferman said that the department head threatened to reduce the professor's salary to zero, and that the professor's salary is currently set at zero.

To understand better what actually happened, I looked at the documents on Fefferman's website. Appendix 15 in the appendices document is the letter in which the professor was informed that he was being put on Unpaid Personal Leave status. (The wording of the letter and the context of the previous letters makes it clear that this is what was meant by the references to "setting the salary to zero".) Importantly, this letter was signed by both the department head and a higher university official with the title "Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs College of Science". Thus, the authority for the decision to place the professor on leave came from outside the department.

(This resonates with my own experience as department chair — a position with comparable but typically slightly less authority than a department head — some years ago. I would often write letters informing people of various things, but whenever I lacked the authority to make a decision, there would need to be a separate letter bearing the signature of the person above me in the hierarchy who had the relevant authority, otherwise it would be meaningless for me to state that decision as fact. Sometimes the letter from the higher administrator would take a while to prepare, so the initial letter from me would say something like "I would like to inform you that I am recommending to the Dean that ...".)

What about the "threatening to set the salary to zero" part? That part is in Appendix 10, which is also a letter from the same two people. Anyway, even if the department head made such a threat all by herself/himself, it is conceivable that a department head would make a threat to do something that is not strictly within their authority to carry out. Possibly making such a threat could simply be shorthand for "I will ask the university to reduce your salary to zero, and I have confidence that they will follow my advice", or it might be empty bravado.

Do department heads typically have control over everyone's salary?

Department heads in some universities have some control of faculty salaries. For example, I have heard of places where the department head makes decisions about how much of a salary increase different faculty members get each year. But I don't know of any place where the head can decide to reduce a faculty member's salary to zero unless that is done as the result of an administrative process where allegations of misconduct or incompetence can be heard and defended against. (Also, as I mentioned above, the phrase "setting the salary to zero" is informal and inaccurate — technically the only way someone's salary would be set to zero is if they are placed on unpaid leave. If they continue doing any work, their salary obviously cannot be set to less than minimum wage.)

Why was he not allowed due process?

We don't know if he was or wasn't. If you look at the files, you'll see that there was some process that went on for quite a while, with various letters, meetings and so on. So I think there is a controversy about this. Possibly it's not black and white, and what one person interprets as "due" process someone else will think was corrupt and one-sided.

If you are no longer performing your job, who is responsible for "firing" you?

All US universities have a process for firing or disciplining faculty members who are accused of violating university policy. The decision to literally fire a tenured faculty member (what in administration-speak is sometimes referred to as "separation", at least on my campus), is usually reserved to the university president or chancellor since it is obviously the ultimate sanction. The authority to reduce someone's salary or place them on unpaid leave for some specified duration may be delegated to a slightly lower-ranking administrator, but I don't think typically it's left to the department head.


No, it is pretty uncommon for universities to try to take any kind of disciplinary action against tenured faculty, which is why people talk almost every time anything like this happens.

However I get the impression that the chair and the university's administration are fully in agreement. The chair didn't do anything on her own; rather, the university did it, and she was its messenger.

I've never heard before of a university telling a tenured professor that (paraphrasibg) they're cutting his pay because they can't schedule him to teach because he's a bad lecturer. This sounds novel and even innovative to me.

I would like to share a couple of illustrative stories from other math departments.

It is unfortunately more common for chairs (or assistant chairs or whoever is doing the scheduling) to intentionally schedule (tenured) faculty they personally dislike to teach at inconvenient times. E.g. I knew someone who was scheduled to teach late at night, and then early the next morning, just to mess with him, every time. I don't know whether he officially complained, but it stopped when someone else started doing the scheduling.

A newly elected chair of onedepartment sent a memo (on paper; this was before e-mail) to everyone, along the lines of "URGENT: provide your research plans for the next year by 11 a.m." Most people had tenure, discussed the request, and collectively decided to ignore him. He soon sent out a second memo, "I'm firing you all for insubordination". At this point, the administration asked him to stop making the department a laughing stock. No one was fired, of course. He only remained the chair until the end of the semester, and stopped being friends with many people. My point is, chairs lack the authority to say such things without the university backing this action.

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    "t is unfortunately more common for chairs (or assistant chairs or whoever is doing the scheduling) to intentionally schedule (tenured) faculty they personally dislike to teach at inconvenient times." -- That's even been used in literature: In the excellent book "Stoner" by John Williams, the protagonist is a professor who gets in trouble with his department head, and subsequently teaches early morning and late evening classes for the next many years. Jan 23, 2023 at 17:26
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    I knew someone who was in this exact situation. He simply put up with it because he knew that his "tormentor" would rotate out of his position of power soon. Jan 24, 2023 at 5:20

I don’t know about that being common but it is absolutely possible to reduce salary in many systems, but the university will need to document why and in the context of that universitiy’s rules. The situations can vary widely and vary further if the faculty is unionized or not. Also relevant is whether this is in a public university (where broad state laws may apply to all state employees, such as forbidding unions). This is in contrast to private schools, though some things such as ‘right-to-work’ laws may apply to all workplaces in a state. The university will have stated levels of performance (such as minimum outside salary to be replaced by grants/contracts,also such conditions may be in individual faculty member contracts) and probably has stated what can happen if not met. In some systems if salary reduces below 100% tenure is automatically lost. This last is questionable but not challenged. In my opinion tenure is nothing but the requirement for substantial due process. The specifics of that due process are typically stated in university rules.

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