Why can a tenured faculty member be fired?

One of the most commons misconceptions about tenure is that you can’t fire a tenured faculty member. The reality is that tenured faculty can and do get fired with some regularity. The difference is that tenure provides for detailed and often complicated due process procedures to protect tenured faculty from dismissal without appropriate cause. In today’s post, I want to answer the question of why can a tenured faculty member be fired by describing the four specific reasons that a tenured faculty member can be removed from an institution.

Photo credit: Amherst College

Before turning to the specific reasons that a tenured faculty member can be fired, it is first helpful to realize what tenure is and is not.

Simply put, tenure is a lifetime contract or literally a contract with no expiration. This means that a tenured faculty member does not have to be reappointed to continue their position.

However, tenured faculty do not have complete autonomy or the ability to get away with anything they want because they have tenure. In addition to a continuing appointment, tenure also specifies the specific reasons that an institution can terminate the employment of a tenured member of the faculty.

One of the central features of tenure since the very beginning is that tenure identifies the process of firing a faculty member.

Each university has slightly different policies, but most institutions have adopted the basic ideals and processes first articulated by the AAUP back in 1940. A key part of this is the notion that faculty have significant due process rights related to termination.

Causes for firing a tenured faculty member

Most of the causes for firing a faculty member are related to their individual performance: incompetence, immoral/personal conduct, and negligence. However, there is one institutional cause that can lead to termination:  financial exigency.

Incompetence

At a basic level, incompetence describes a faculty member’s inability to perform their primary job functions. For example, a faculty member might not be able to teach class or grade their students’ work. To terminate a faculty member for reason of incompetence, an institution needs to demonstrate with the support and evaluation of other faculty that an individual is no longer able to perform their duties. In many instances, an institution may decide only in the egregious of cases to pursue termination for incompetence instead preferring other means to ease a faculty member out of their role.

Negligence 

In contrast to incompetence, a termination case based on negligence argues that a faculty member has the ability to carry out their job, but chooses not to do so. Neglect speaks to a faculty member not performing their jobs such as repeatedly missing class. While this category could broadly be construed as insubordination, courts have ruled that neglect is a higher standard than just not doing what you’re told to do. Negligence often comes up related to one’s teaching such as not grading students, not showing up to class, or failing doing the basic requirements of one’s job. It would not include a failure to do more minor things such as putting your syllabus in the wrong font or something more trivial like this.

Immoral/personal conduct

Perhaps the most common and public of causes for termination of a tenured faculty member relates to immoral or personal conduct. Often, the term of moral turpitude is used to describe behavior that is so abhorrent to be universally condemned. The causes for this type of termination might include abuse, sexual harassment, fraud, and criminal activity. In addition, academic issues such as research misconduct or plagiarism could fall into this category. Ultimately, conduct of this type is more than just something a president or dean doesn’t like (i.e. disagreeing with a policy position), but behavior that nearly everyone in higher education would agree is unacceptable.

Financial exigency

Beyond individual behavior, there is one generally recognized reason that an institution can let a tenured faculty member go that does not relate to performance. All institutions go through periods of financial hardship from a change in enrollment, endowment returns, or state appropriations. The AAUP defines financial exigency as “an imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole.” One of the examples that I always use to describe this is post-Katrina New Orleans. If your campus is under six feet of water, your students have all left town, and you don’t know when you can possibly reopen again, you are in serious financial danger that threatens the ability of your institution to survive. There may be other less dramatic causes than Katrina, but the point here is that we aren’t talking about a small cut to the budget. An institution may decide to close a program, but tenured faculty should be moved elsewhere in the university where they can contribute. In particular, a financial crisis in one unit (i.e. a school or department) that does not threaten the overall institution does not meet the threshold for financial exigency. To be sure, there are examples of institutions that have tried to use financial problems in recent years to terminate faculty but very few of these are true financial exigency and faculty that have gone to court have often won.

Tenured faculty can be let go

Despite the critics who decry that tenured faculty have a job for life, tenured faculty can be terminated for just cause. As noted here, there are individual as well as institution causes that can justify firing a faculty member. Tenure certainly raises the standards for termination and includes due process protections, but tenured faculty can and do get fired from colleges and universities.