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Academic Freedom and Tenure

Roots of Academic Freedom, Restrictions on Academic Freedom, Tenure

Professors have a variety of responsibilities, which generally fall within one of three main areas: research, teaching, and service. In research and teaching, and sometimes in service, inquiry is the key aspect of what professors do. In research, professors examine traditional and new ideas and draw conclusions; in teaching, professors share information and knowledge with students, raising questions and at times offering answers about issues. And, in service, professors bring their expertise to a problem, using inquiry to aid in the solution. These fundamental activities give rise to complex concepts: academic freedom and tenure.

Roots of Academic Freedom

Academic freedom in the United States derives its conceptual basis from nineteenth-century German conceptions of freedom for professors in research and teaching. These conceptions, called Lerhfreiheit, offered legal protections for professors, who were employed as civil servants in German universities. U.S. professors who had studied in Germany in the 1800s (the most popular location for graduate study at the time) returned home focused on research as a search for truth. As American professors increasingly challenged a variety of economic, political, and social tenets, a need for academic safeguards soon arose. By the early 1900s, a few nationally recognized professors had been dismissed by their universities because of their findings on such issues as the abuse of immigrant labor, unions, and administrative control of universities.

Initially, disciplinary societies investigated these dismissals, although they had virtually no power to sanction institutions, other than through public discussion of institutional errors of judgment. A national professorial organization, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), was founded in 1915 in an effort to provide opportunities for professors to influence, if not control, colleges and universities. Association leaders found, however, that the most pressing challenge was the protection of academic freedom, and the AAUP became the primary national group dedicated to the preservation of academic freedom. Although German professors were protected as civil servants, United States professors have had to rely on the activity of organizations such as AAUP. In 1915, 1925, and 1940, the AAUP developed national policy statements on academic freedom, and the 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure has been endorsed by a wide range of educational organizations, whose membership ranges from mostly professors to mostly administrators. The statement provides a definition of academic freedom, including that:

  1. The teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of his other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his subject, but he should be careful not to introduce into his teaching controversial matter that has no relation to his subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

The AAUP proposed that institutions assure such freedom through the device of academic tenure, and the 1940 statement outlined specific procedures in regard to the award and removal of tenure, indicating that "teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, except in the retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies"(p. 4), and that moral turpitude may be cause for dismissal. The statement also indicates that professors should exercise restraint in their public utterances, in view of their special position as experts. Tenure is a device that protects, to some degree, professors' academic freedom.

Thus, academic freedom is the freedom to inquire and to communicate the results of that inquiry both in publication and in the classroom. The AAUP definition has important exceptions to such freedom, including for institutions with religious aims since these institutions often require statements of faith that preclude unfettered inquiry, with truth defined by a church or denomination. However, a 1970 interpretation addressed this exception, indicating that church-related institutions, which were becoming increasingly secular, needed to address the principle of academic freedom.

Restrictions on Academic Freedom

Other organizations have also developed statements on academic freedom, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and in the 1950s, the Association of American Universities. The AFT and NEA issued a joint statement in the 1990s, one that reflects much of the sentiment of the 1940 AAUP statement. The statement of the Association of American Universities on academic freedom in 1953, however, placed substantial restrictions on professors, claiming, for example, that membership in the Communist Party warranted dismissal. Such a claim was in the context of McCarthyism, when much of the nation was gripped with fear about Communist infiltration of political and intellectual sectors of society, yet the claim also put academic freedom in conflict with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The AAUP itself, in a 1956 statement on academic freedom, indicated that it was legitimate to question the competence of professors who were Communists. As several scholars have noted, restrictions on public utterances are, in fact, restrictions on freedom of speech as constructed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, statements on academic freedom are not necessarily absolute statements of principle.

Nor does academic freedom exist outside the social characteristics of the academy. An empirical analysis of AAUP academic freedom cases involving dismissed professors in the 1980s indicated that there was a gendered bias in academic freedom and tenure issues, for institutions often removed women professors before considering the removal of other faculty members. This finding suggests that women occupy an especially vulnerable place in the academy, regardless of the protections offered by academic freedom and tenure. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the AAUP leadership and membership debated the relationships of academic freedom to such issues as race, ethnicity, and gender, and the association has addressed these relationships through a variety of policy statements.

In addition, academic freedom entails areas of behavior with important nuances. Examinations of professors in times of specific societal concerns about patterns of thought–such as McCarthyism or the segregation in the deep South–indicate that professors may restrict their work without acknowledging any restriction on their academic freedom. Any such apprehensions about academic freedom (which scholars have documented as a key issue of academic freedom) reflect external pressures and, perhaps just as important, individual professors' hesitancy to challenge the status quo.

Finally, in view of the challenges to society and institutions that occur as a result of inquiry in the academy, there are disparate views regarding academic freedom, and there is even a tendency to individual interpretation. While the AAUP statements on academic freedom have been central points of reference, other organizations have added to the meanings of academic freedom, and individual colleges and universities may also develop their own definitions of the concept. In general, it represents the freedom of the professor to do research and to teach on matters of expertise, but specific characteristics often vary depending on the era, the topic of concern, the individual professor, and the institutions involved. Academic freedom is also dependent on a college or university's willingness to protect the professor, especially by guaranteeing his or her appointment. Tenure is the primary device for such guarantees.


Tenure, in general, provides a lifetime contract between a professor and an institution, and as such serves as the primary safeguard for academic freedom. The AAUP initiated negotiations with the Association of American Colleges in the 1930s in order to develop its 1940 statement, and a central goal of the AAUP leadership was to ensure procedures, through the use of tenure, that would protect academic freedom. Careful processes for the dismissal of a tenured professor are offered in detail in the 1940 statement, with several subsequent interpretations to further the right of professors to due process. Institutions do dismiss professors with tenure, although far less often than they dismiss professors without tenure, since the dismissal of a tenured professor can be a protracted experience and may include lawsuits as well as lengthy institutional procedures.

Tenure often requires a probationary period of seven years, during which the professor is expected to develop the patterns of productivity, especially in scholarship and teaching, that will characterize his or her work for the remainder of the career. In the last year or so of the probationary period, the tenure candidate proceeds through a review process, which usually includes fellow professors as well as administrators and culminates in a decision to award or deny tenure. Professors who do not receive tenure may leave higher education, or move to another college or university–sometimes in a tenure-track position, and other times in a position that will never offer tenure.

There are a variety of arguments about the worth of tenure, including many opposing views. It is unclear whether institutions spend more or less money when they have tenured faculty members, as the condition of tenure is a device for recruiting potential professors at less than pure market competitive conditions, but then requires an institution to maintain its contract–and increases in salary and benefits–with the tenured professor. Some institutions have used contracts (often in three-or five-year sequences), rather than tenure, as a way of establishing flexibility. These institutions have often found, however, that it is extremely rare for them to dismiss any of the contracted professors. Additionally, tenure does not protect the academic freedom of untenured professors, an issue that became extremely important in the 1990s, when the number of part-time and non-tenure-track professors surged.

Nevertheless, tenure remains a dominant characteristic of the U.S. professoriate. For several decades, from two-thirds to half of all full-time professors have held tenure, and the national faculty associations continue to place considerable emphasis on tenure. Despite arguments against tenure, colleges and universities have not found any compelling substitutes that offer professors some security when they pursue controversial topics in their research and teaching.

Academic freedom is a cornerstone of the role of higher education, offering professors the opportunity to investigate issues, including highly controversial ones, in the ongoing search for truth. Tenure offers protection for professors who voice unpopular ideas. Neither academic freedom nor tenure, however, operates in a pure sense, as both are subject to social and institutional pressures.


AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS. 1984. "1940 Statement of Principles and Interpretive Comments." Policy Document Reports, 1940 edition. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

GRUBER, CAROL. 1975. Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of Higher Learning. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

HOFSTADTER, RICHARD, and METZGER, WALTER P. 1955. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

HUTCHESON, PHILO A. 2000. A Professional Professoriate: Unionization, Bureaucratization, and the AAUP. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

SLAUGHTER, SHEILA. 1994. "Academic Freedom at the End of the Century: Professional Labor, Gender, and Professionalism." In Higher Education in American Society, 3rd edition, ed. Philip G. Altbach, Robert O. Berdahl, and Patricia J. Gumport. Buffalo, NY: Promotheus Books.


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