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What Are the Different Reasons for Being Denied Tenure?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Tenure positions, which tend to offer lifetime job security to people who maintain high standards of teaching, are extremely desirable. Those who get hired as tenure track are possibly on their way to job security and a distinguished career at a university. Yet not everyone who is designated tenure track ultimately receives this designation, and people who are denied tenure may want to know the reasons why this offer of continued employment did not occur. Some of these reasons are fairly obvious, like failure to publish a certain amount of material, but others can be more nebulous or even nefarious.

Certainly, the “publish or perish” rule applies when people seek a tenured position. They must research and/or publish a certain amount of books or articles that accrue greater stature to the university. Each department at a school may have its own standards as to how many and what types of publications are required, and these may be implied instead of stated. The best way to determine minimum requirements is possibly to ask, or to look at the publication amounts and types of those granted tenure recently. Not meeting these standards makes it much more likely that people will be denied tenure.

Failing to show skill in teaching is a perfectly legitimate reason for a professor to be denied tenure. If the associate professor generates constant complaints about his/her classes, workload or attitude toward students, this may suggest he or she is not suited to teaching. It’s recommended people craft strong teaching programs and establish good rapport with students to avoid this scenario.

Another area in which associate professors may need to invest some time is in improvements for their specific school. Changing curriculum, implementing new programs that give the school prestige, and creating other changes could be viewed favorably. On the other hand, pushing through changes opposed by senior faculty is a very good way to get denied tenure.

In fact, one reason for which a person can be denied tenure is if enemies are made with senior faculty. These are often the people who make decisions about granting tenure, and creating strongly negative feelings among these people can be disastrous to a career. While many tenured professors are perfectly reasonable and willing to grant tenure to those with huge theoretical differences or variances in working style, a few professors are not this way and may hold grudges. Lack of diplomacy on the part of the associate professor, or simply the unreasonable nature of tenured professors may result in denied tenure in some circumstances.

There can be deeper and more difficult reasons why a professor is denied tenure. Studies have shown that even in light of less gender-biased times, women often are denied tenure for less easy to explain reasons. These denials are increasingly generating discrimination lawsuits because reasons can’t be fully explained and appear to exhibit gender bias. Similar problems may exist for those of different racial groups or ethnicities at some universities.

Denial of tenure may end a professor’s career, since it usually means the professor is no longer employable at the particular college with which he was tenure track. This may mean the professor moves onto a different school, or takes a position outside of teaching. There are many who criticize the tenure process and suggest that each university department should establish specific criteria upon which tenure is granted, and then adhere to it.

What Does It Mean To Be Denied Tenure?

In the general sense, tenure refers to the number of years an employee has worked for the same organization or company. More specifically, when someone is hired to take on a teaching position at a university or other institution of higher education, he or she has the opportunity to apply for tenure after a certain number of years on the job. Achieving it means being able to hold onto one's teaching position for many years to come, cementing one's future career, possibly into retirement. For example, if a junior lecturer or associate professor applies for tenure and receives it, he or she can become a full-time tenured professor for years at the same university, often without the threat of being fired or let go, except in extreme circumstances.

Unfortunately, such job security is not always granted. If someone is denied tenure, it means that the individual did not satisfy certain conditions or meet the requirements of the position, as determined by a committee of peer reviewers. Some applicants can apply for tenure more than once, but the rules and regulations vary for different states and institutions. Even if a person sends applications multiple times during the eligible period, which is typically up to six years of employment, there is no guarantee of being able to advance after a final denial.

Can You Sue for Being Denied Tenure?

It is possible to sue after being denied tenure if the faculty member feels strongly that the decision was unjustified or wrong. Many have taken this approach after not receiving reasonable feedback from their peers as to why they were denied in the first place. To start, one can appeal the ruling laid out by the institution. These appeals generally receive little support and don't often end in an overturned decision for the applicant, but the option is available.

Beyond this, if someone does believe there is merit to his or her case, speaking with a lawyer and discussing options can lead to a case being argued in court. Past tenure cases have been filed over such reasons as contractual issues, gender discrimination, race discrimination, fraud, defamation and more. If the case centers around a well-known university, it can become a publicized battle, and the results aren't always positive for the individual who was denied. Many plaintiffs lose their cases due to institutions having steadfast tenure policies and procedures in place from the start. It's also difficult for an associate to win in court against a long-standing or reputable establishment.

What Happens If Tenure Is Denied?

Denial of tenure typically means that the faculty member only has one more "terminal year" to stay employed at his or her current university before being let go. Those who choose to pursue appeals or legal action can move forward with their cases. However, those denied tenure can also try their luck at another establishment suited to their field of interest. The final year can be used to job search, apply for different positions, set up interviews, change locations or handle any other responsibilities that are necessary for moving ahead with one's career.

Leaving the previous workplace typically encourages those who were denied tenure to continue their pursuits elsewhere. Many carry on with their research, which may have been deemed too controversial or not financially viable for the university that recently employed them. Others are offered publishing deals and grants from outside organizations or investors who want to see the work the individual has been committed to for years carried further. Overall, those denied tenure are fully capable of seeking support for their work from other interested sources.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is tenure?

Tenure is a form of job security granted to teachers and professors after a probationary period. It ensures that they cannot be fired without just cause and provides them with academic freedom to pursue research and teaching without fear of reprisal.

What are some reasons for being denied tenure?

There are several reasons why a faculty member may be denied tenure, including a lack of research productivity, poor teaching evaluations, interpersonal conflicts, and a failure to contribute to the university community. Other factors, such as budget constraints or programmatic changes, may also play a role in the decision.

What happens if I am denied tenure?

If you are denied tenure, you may be given a terminal contract for one more academic year before your employment is terminated. Alternatively, you may be offered a non-tenure track position, which provides less job security but may still allow you to continue teaching and conducting research.

What can I do if I am denied tenure?

If you are denied tenure, you may have the option to appeal the decision or file a grievance with the university. You may also choose to seek employment at another institution that offers more favorable tenure policies or explore other career options outside of academia.

How can I improve my chances of obtaining tenure?

To increase your chances of obtaining tenure, it is important to maintain a record of research productivity, consistently receive positive teaching evaluations, and actively participate in the university community. Developing strong relationships with colleagues and seeking mentorship from senior faculty members can also be beneficial. Additionally, seeking feedback and making changes based on constructive criticism can help improve your overall performance.

Practical Adult Insights 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.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By matthec — On May 24, 2010

After a certain number of years, can tenure be implied legally, regardless of the status of an instructor or professor?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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