IN THE LONG slog of academia, tenure is often considered the promised land. Professors granted tenure are guaranteed job security until retirement, free to teach and research without the chill of capricious firing. A cynical read of the process is that it amounts to nearly a blank check, with few ways to rein in a professor who is slipping in their performance or research obligations.
But now the very nature of what tenure promises is before the state’s highest court.
“To get tenure is a big deal – you win the trifecta,” said Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker at a hearing last week. “The trifecta is you have some continuous employment; you have some economic security, that’s sufficient economic security; and you have academic freedom. That’s the trifecta. That’s why they pop the champagne bottles when you get tenure, but there are limits to that too, right?”
The dust-up stems from a 2017-2019 change to compensation plans and research space guidelines at Tufts School of Medicine, which requires tenured science faculty to generate external funding to support at least half of their base salary after three years, or face salary and lab space cuts.
Eight tenured Tufts science professors penalized under that policy change are arguing that the terms of their tenure, awarded some decades ago, was a guarantee that they could pursue research as they chose and be paid for it. Supporting research that only has a certain level of financing attached to it would narrow the field of available research and discourage work on other meaningful subjects, they argue.
“Academic freedom is defined as absolute freedom to pursue whatever your research interests are,” said attorney Kevin Peters, who is representing the professors. The affront isn’t that salaries were lowered, he said, it’s that the principles of academic freedom and economic stability suggest “salaries cannot be lowered as a means to impose discipline on an academic who doesn’t pursue research that is fundable by the [National Institutes of Health].”
Under the contract at hand, Peters said, the only recourse a university has for a tenured professor who is not generating funding is the for-cause disciplinary process.
The university says that the school is allowed to set the general terms of employment, even amending the specifics later, and take action if a professor falls short of those terms. A lower court sided with the university, declaring that the compensation plans and research space guidelines do not violate any grant of academic freedom or economic security.
The debate opens a can of worms for the thousands of tenured professors across the state. For scientific and medical research faculty, they face a finite amount of research lab space and are generally expected to fund at least a portion of that research through grants to support the university’s research mission. But the basic norms of tenure seem to suggest some degree of special protection.
Frankly, Kafker said, he is “not 100 percent sure” that the Superior Court got it right. He pushed Tufts attorney Daryl Lapp on the basic principles, asking if the university could slash pay for a tenured professor to just $3.
“It would not be a violation of the tenure policy to do that,” Lapp said.
Justices seemed taken aback by Lapp’s further assertion that academic freedom is a general promise made to all faculty, not just tenured professors, but enjoying that freedom is subject to performing other parts of the job adequately.
“You’re not really arguing that tenure doesn’t include academic freedom, because you’re gutting the entire conception of tenure if that’s the case,” Kafker said.
Lapp argued that the tenure promise does not come with any promise of compensation, so reducing it would not violate the contract. He said tenure does not promise full-time work, only lifelong work, so reducing hours for poor performance would not violate the contract.
While few justices asked questions during Peters’ time, almost the entire bench was moved to probe the implications of Lapp’s claims.
“What’s the limit?” Justice Dalila Wendlandt asked of the university’s ability to slash a tenured professor’s salary.
“The limit would be any reduction that is commensurate with a faculty member’s failure to do the job that qualified them to get tenure here,” Lapp said.
That made little sense to Chief Justice Kimberly Budd. “What about economic security?” she asked. “I’m just confused. Sounds like tenure’s not such a great deal.”
Justice Frank Gaziano quipped, “At least not at Tufts.”