How Can a College Professor Lose Tenure?

Sami Al-Arian, arrested last week on charges of abetting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is a tenured computer science professor at the University of South Florida. How can a faculty member be stripped of tenure?

The exact procedure varies from campus to campus, but tenured professors are generally guaranteed the right to a fair hearing before a committee of their peers. The administration must convince the committee that the professor in question is guilty of either moral turpitude (such as sexual harassment) or gross incompetence (such as repeatedly missing class). Alternately, the university can try to argue that the professor’s entire department is no longer financially viable and must therefore be dismantled.

Although the popular perception is that tenured professors are almost never terminated, the National Education Association contends that 2 percent of tenured faculty are dismissed each year. Several state university systems now conduct periodic post-tenure reviews to determine whether established professors are taking it a bit too easy. Tenured faculty who are terminated for cause often sue their institutions in state court, claiming due process was not followed or the evidence of misconduct was not convincing.

So, why hasn’t Al-Arian lost his job yet? The University of South Florida’s Board of Trustees voted in December 2001 to fire the controversial professor, long accused of raising funds for Islamic extremist groups, but USF’s Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to retain Al-Arian. University President Judy L. Genshaft has vowed to follow through with the termination, claiming that the decision ultimately rests in her hands, rather than those of any faculty committee. The firing has not yet come to pass, however, due in large part to the public outcry from the American Association of University Professors, which has threatened to censure USF if Al-Arian is pink-slipped.

Less than four months ago, as the debate over Al-Arian’s fate raged, USF adopted a new set of guidelines governing the job security of tenured faculty. Professors can now be axed for any of 14 different reasons, including “any other properly substantiated cause or action that is detrimental to the best interests of the university, its students, or its employees.” The university insists that the adoption of the new rules, among the nation’s most stringent, had nothing to do with the Al-Arian matter.

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Explainer thanks John Lee of JBL Associates.