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What Is Academic Tenure?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Academic tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment in an academic job, barring unforeseen and usually dramatic circumstances. Once a professor gains tenure, he or she becomes extremely difficult to remove from the position. Tenure has been widely criticized from both within the academic community and without, although there are certainly some solid reasons to offer academic tenure to notable professors. Many countries have reformed their tenure systems to reflect changing ideas about tenure and the nature of academic employment.

As a general rule, academic tenure is offered to instructors in senior positions. Until tenure is offered, professors are hired on a contract basis, which means that they could be released at any time. With tenure often come benefits such as a better office, health care benefits, larger payments into retirement accounts, and access to various perks at the university. Tenure is granted after a careful review of the candidate which is supposed to include teaching, publication history, research history, and a variety of other facets of the professor's performance.

In fact, tenure review sometimes focuses just on a professor's ability to get grants and get published, with the university looking for professors who will add to the endowment and prestige of the institution. As a result, sometimes shoddy professors get tenure, simply because they know how to assemble an appealing tenure application, and high-quality professors who are not as involved in academia may be overlooked.

The primary justification for academic tenure is academic freedom. Because tenured professors cannot be fired or released without very sound reasons, they usually feel freer to express themselves. Tenured professors are willing to speak out, to conduct controversial research, and to question conventional wisdom. Professors without tenure may feel pressured to toe the party line in order to keep their jobs. Since many universities claim to value academic freedom and the freedom of expression, academic tenure is ostensibly used to support such freedoms.

Job security is also a very important issue with many professional unions, and in some cases, unions may pressure universities to offer tenure. A union professor may only be able to work so many years on contract, for example, forcing the university to offer tenure or release the professor. This strategy can backfire, of course, because a university may decide that releasing the professor is in its best interest.

There are a number of valid criticisms of academic tenure. Tenured professors often teach less, confident that they can take on a smaller course load and keep their jobs. They may also offer less support to students, and some are criticized as bad or lazy teachers. Tenure also has a chilling effect on academic freedom for non-tenured professors, who try not to rock the boat until they get tenure. Tenured professors also tend to be expensive to maintain, so if they don't “earn their keep” with grants and prestigious publications, they can become white elephants.

What Is Tenure for Teachers?

Tenure is not a status granted only to professors of higher education. Teachers in K-12 public schools may also be eligible, depending on individual state laws. Tenure provides elementary, middle and high school educators with a level of job security that prevents them from being terminated except for substantiated reasons, such as in cases of gross misconduct. It is not a guarantee of employment for life.

Why Tenure Was First Adopted

Teacher tenure has existed for over 100 years, beginning in New Jersey in 1909. The state’s government sought to ensure that children received a high-quality education from skilled teachers. As a result, tenure rights were established as protective measures against employment decisions based on personal or political factors.

These protections also served to limit the ability to influence a teacher’s activities both in and out of the classroom. Before tenure rights were widely enacted, school boards fired teachers for reasons such as objecting to war, supporting civil rights and for female teachers, getting married.

Tenure awarded greater academic freedom to teachers, allowing them to provide instruction on controversial topics, such as evolution, despite outcries from opposing groups.

During the integration of schools, tenure played a role in preventing racist employment practices, protecting black teachers from being fired for their skin color.

Pros and Cons of Tenure

Despite historically being a safeguard against unfair firing, tenure has become well, tenuous. Supporters claim that tenure laws continue to be necessary to prevent discriminatory and baseless terminations. Critics argue that the passage of civil rights legislation has eliminated the need for tenure. Opponents also counter that the tenure system is flawed and has actually negatively impacted students. Here are some articulated pros and cons at the forefront of the tenure debate:


  • Tenure protects teachers from vengeful parents whose child does not perform to their expectations
  • Tenure promotes greater job satisfaction
  • Tenure shields teachers from the self-serving whims of power-hungry administrators and school board members
  • Tenure allows for creativity in the classroom
  • Tenure secures employment for experienced teachers during times of economic crisis instead of hiring novice, lower-paid teachers solely for budgetary relief


  • Legislation and unions already provide adequate protection
  • Low-performing teachers remain on staff because it is too cumbersome and cost-prohibitive for districts to go through the removal process
  • Tenure encourages complacency as teachers can do the bare minimum with the assurance that they are unlikely to lose their job
  • Non-tenured teachers are more likely to undergo disciplinary actions than their tenured counterparts

Eligibility Requirements for Tenure

Tenure policies are determined by individual states so eligibility requirements can vary, and not all states offer tenure. In states that do have tenure laws, requirements are typically as follows:

  1. Must have 3-5 years of continuous service at the same institution
  2. Satisfactory rating during the last four months prior to obtaining tenure
  3. Available to both part-time and full-time employees, provided all other requirements are met
  4. Tenure is automatically granted once all requirements have been met

Detailed tenure requirements for each state, if applicable, can be verified on board of education websites.

What Is Tenure in a Job?

Tenure carries a different meaning outside of the world of academia. In other professional settings, “tenure” simply refers to the length of time an employee has been in their current position or with their current employer. There are two main types of job tenure: long and short. Long job tenure generally refers to 5 or more years with the same employer, while short job tenure refers to less than 2 years.

Employers consider an individual’s job tenure when making hiring and promotion decisions. Employees with long job tenure may be thought of as loyal and experienced. Conversely, they may be considered complacent and stale. Those with short job tenure could either be seen as well-rounded and ambitious, or unreliable and maladapted. Job tenure is an important factor when gaining insight into a current or prospective employee.

What Is Tenure Status?

Tenure status is the distinction given to educators in K-12 and higher education settings who demonstrate a well-documented history of success working with students. Although requirements to achieve tenure vary from state to state and differ for K-12 teachers and college or university professors, those who have this standing are highly regarded across the board as top educators in the field.

Some districts have responded to concerns about continued quality once a teacher has earned tenure by establishing additional requirements, such as performance reviews, to be met in order to retain tenure status.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By subway11 — On May 18, 2011

@Sauteepan - I wanted to add that I can see both sides of the case because there are stronger arguments in both directions.

I was looking into the academic salaries of some of these tenured professors and it was higher than I thought. The range varies depending on the type of institution but for the most part the average salary range for a tenured professor is from $70,000 to $165,000.

By SauteePan — On May 15, 2011

@Bhutan - I understand what you are saying but I am not sure that tenure for an academic position is the right way to go. I think that the fact that you can lose your job motivates you to perform at your best.

However, if that fear is removed it might make a teacher complacent and not perform his or her job with the same zeal. I also think that it does not gives the school system an opportunity to evaluate the performance of the teacher each and every year to ensure that they are performing at satisfactory levels.

I know that there is a debate right now about ending teacher tenure for that reason in the public school system in Florida. As a matter of fact, the legislature signed a bill that would end teacher tenure for new and incoming teachers.

The teachers that have already obtained tenure will remain tenured. I think that the problem is that many schools are failing or are below average with respect to national standards and they want to make everyone accountable.

I think that in failing schools we have to look at everything and possibly put the best teachers in those schools in order to turn them around. The teaching profession is not easy, but I don’t think that offering tenure is the answer.

By Bhutan — On May 13, 2011

@Suntan12 - I think that one of the reasons for tenure in an academic position is to allow the professor the freedom to teach in an in depth manner subjects that they deem important without repercussions. Tenure and academic freedom really go hand in hand.

For example, when I was in college, I had a tenured professor that taught Cuban history. He was an expert in Marxist ideology and Cuban studies this was his specialty. He taught in an unconventional manner which offered a different prospective that was often controversial. Although most of the class was filled with children of Cuban immigrants that had a totally different perspective altogether, the students could not complain and try to get this professor fired because they disagreed with his stance on communism.

This is why a tenured professor has to be protected because they will often delve into controversial areas in order to get the students to think more broadly, but many students often become offended and misconstrue the approach.

By suntan12 — On May 12, 2011

Anon86214 - No not really. Tenure is an official classification that protects the professor or teacher from losing their job and it is a highly coveted position. A professor may be teaching at an institution for a long time but that alone does not mean that they have tenure. Tenure is something that is granted and it is not automatic.

By anon86214 — On May 24, 2010

After a certain period of time spent on the job at a university, even in a non-tenure track position, isn't tenure actually implied in a legal sense?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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