Beyond Buffett: What should be the top tax rate?

Billionaire financier Warren Buffett recently made headlines with his call for the mega-rich to pay a fairer share of taxes (link here):

Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

…Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

We need to talk specifics

To get beyond Buffett’s general call, we need to talk specifics. A good starting place is to ask: What should be the top income tax rate for those at the highest rung of the income ladder? In a lengthy piece for The Atlantic on the future of the middle class, Don Peck gives us some perspective (link here):

Over time, the United States has expected less and less of its elite, even as society has oriented itself in a way that is most likely to maximize their income. The top income-tax rate was 91 percent in 1960, 70 percent in 1980, 50 percent in 1986, and 39.6 percent in 2000, and is now 35 percent. Income from investments is taxed at a rate of 15 percent. The estate tax has been gutted.

We should be careful about calls to soak the rich — especially given natural tendencies to label as wealthy anyone in the next tax bracket or higher.

However, moderate tax hikes applying to those who can most easily afford them would be fair and are needed. This is all rather subjective, but here’s my sense. Even as someone who isn’t worried about reaching the highest tax bracket, top tax rates of 91 percent and 70 percent strike me as being too high. But somewhere between 40 and 45 percent seems fair — at least for folks making multiple millions. Some increase on taxes for investment income also would be appropriate.

Payroll taxes, too

In addition, we need to look at the payroll tax, which funds Social Security. As I noted last fall, although the Social Security retirement fund is facing an eventual shortfall due to the crush of Baby Boomers hurdling towards retirement, in reality it is among our most stable social programs. Jane Slaughter from Labor Notes observes that there’s a relatively easy fix to ensure the program’s ability to pay out full benefits long into the future (link here):

There’s an easy and equitable solution: make high earners pay their fair share. Today, most workers pay the 6.2 percent FICA tax on their entire incomes. But the fortunate ones—roughly the top 6 percent of earners–pay FICA only on their first $106,800. Eliminate that cap, keep their benefits the same, and we’d end up with another surplus after 2037.

Personal responsibility and public need

Unfortunately, powerful forces disagree with all of this. In fact, Republican leaders in Congress are mulling around ideas to impose higher taxes on those who are struggling the most, reasoning that those of low and moderate incomes who are paying few or no taxes are not doing their share to help this country.

In the meantime, the jobless rate remains very high. Teachers, police officers, and firefighters are being laid off. Important safety net programs such as Social Security disability and FEMA relief are crying for funding. Public libraries are closing or cutting their hours. Bridges and roads across the country are in dire need of repair. Too many people are hungry and broke, through no fault of their own.

Surely this harkens back to the observations of John Kenneth Galbraith, one of my intellectual heroes, when he wrote of an affluent society grounded in “private wealth” and “public squalor.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt — a member of the patrician class himself — said that taxes “are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” I think this dovetails well with the Biblical reminder that when someone is given much, much will be required in return. In sum, we should be asking more of those who can afford to contribute a greater amount toward the public good.

iPads for Yale med students

Entering Yale medical students will receive a new Apple iPad loaded with apps relevant to their curriculum, reports Chelsea Conaboy for the Boston Globe‘s health care professions blog (link here):

Yale School of Medicine this year will outfit all students with iPads and no longer provide printed course materials. The initiative, born out of a going-green effort, could save the school money in the long run, said Assistant Dean for Curriculum Mike Schwartz.

…The iPad has enough security tools that the students can use them to store health information in their clinical years. Eventually, the iPads will sync to hospital electronic health records, though Schwartz said that capability likely won’t be available for at least a year.

…A side note: Privacy is paramount when dealing with health information, and mobile devices pose a particular challenge because they are easily lost or stolen.

“Gee whiz” and “uh oh”

I had two conflicting reactions when I read this.

The first reaction was amazement over the supersonic emergence of the tablet computer, a market thoroughly dominated by the iPad. A couple of years ago, tablets were unheard of. When Apple released the iPad, many industry experts and reviewers scoffed at it. This is an incredible story of a product creating and then largely occupying a brand new market.

I’m no computer expert, but I was one of the skeptics. Within a year or so, however, I was drooling over iPads at Apple Stores. When the iPad 2 came out, I was a goner. I feared I would play with it for a few weeks and then put it away, like a kid who quickly tires of a birthday present he had obsessed over for months. But I find it’s not only a great entertainment machine, but also very handy for out-of-town trips to conferences and meetings.

The second reaction was concern. The iPad is a thin, light slab of metal, and as the article notes, it’s “easily lost or stolen.” The idea that important medical records and information — er, make that my medical records and information — could be stored in there is a little disconcerting.

Even the internal pull-up keyboard and the available plug-in keyboards raise concerns about fast and accurate typing of information. Overall, I just don’t think of the iPad as a heavy-duty work machine. I have no idea if the folks at Apple ever imagined it would be used for such purposes, and I hope the machine is built strong enough to withstand it.

Here to stay?

Are tablets a transitional, passing fancy or a new computer staple? The tablet market remains a relatively small one, but the emerging use of tablets for work purposes — an increasingly frequent sight not only in airport waiting areas but also in meeting rooms — suggests the latter.

I just hope the med students aren’t playing “Angry Birds” during the lecture on how to do an appendectomy.

Fresno school superintendent Larry Powell gives up salary, seeks to protect kids from bullying

This story sounds too good to be true, but I’ll run with it anyway: It’s about a public school superintendent who (1) gave up most of the remaining $800,000 on his contract; (2) serves as a leader in the anti-bullying movement for kids; and (3) earns praise from a leader of a union that negotiates with the school district.

Meet Larry Powell, age 63, the Fresno County (CA) School Superintendent. Tracie Cone of the Associated Press files this story about him (link here):

Some people give back to their community. Then there’s Fresno County School Superintendent Larry Powell, who’s really giving back. As in $800,000 — what would have been his compensation for the next three years.

Until his term expires in 2015, Powell will run 325 schools and 35 school districts with 195,000 students, all for less than a starting California teacher earns.

“How much do we need to keep accumulating?” asks Powell, 63. “There’s no reason for me to keep stockpiling money.”

Cone further reports that Powell “serves on the board of a national anti-bullying group that sprang from the Columbine shootings” and “is so popular he even counts among his friends his contract bargaining nemesis, the former head of the employees’ union.”

Early adversity

It has been a recurring theme on this blog to tout the impact of personal resilience and overcoming adversity in creating society’s difference makers. As Cone adds, Powell fits the bill:

He even sees as an asset his childhood contraction of polio, which left him with a limp and a brace, and now a lingering post-polio syndrome.

“It’s the most spectacular thing that has happened to me in all my life,” he said. “People stepped up to help me be successful.”

Giving back

News accounts indicate that Powell and his wife are secure for retirement and that he’s already reached the maximum pension under the California system. So it’s not as if he’s taking a vow of poverty by giving up most of his remaining salary.

But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the significance of this gesture.

Right now we’re witnessing a mini-debate over whether America’s super rich should pay higher income taxes, sparked by Warren Buffett’s recent op-ed piece positing that he and other billionaires should be taxed at a higher rate for the betterment of society. By comparison, Larry Powell — a well-compensated public servant — has taken an immediate action route, opting to forgo most of his remaining salary. Bingo. Done.

We need such role models in visible positions, and it appears that Powell is one of those rarities. Take a look at Cone’s article and see if you don’t feel a little bit better about the ability of individuals to inspire others and serve as positive examples.

Wisdom, experience, and leadership

I’m wondering if we should raise the minimum age to serve as President of the United States from 35 to around 55 or 60.

Okay, I’m kidding. Or maybe not.

Bill Clinton today

After watching a couple of recent Commencement speeches by former President Clinton (including one at the online Walden University, linked above), I find myself wishing that the Bill Clinton of today was in the White House.

He’s still the charmer, but more importantly he’s wiser and more comfortable in his own skin than the younger, ambitious man who served as President from 1992 to 2000.

I’m sure if he became President today, I wouldn’t be in full agreement with his positions. But I’d have a lot more faith that his decisions and policy stances were grounded in experience, wisdom, and understanding — including mistakes he’s made and what he’s learned from them.

Our obsession with youth

Our societal obsession with youth and youthfulness has extended into the leaders we seek, and that’s rarely a good thing.

All too often we elevate talented, promising people to high-level leadership positions before they are ready, or at least before they possess the experience and emotional intelligence to fulfill their considerable promise. (I put our current President in that category.)

School of Life

The School of Life is a valuable teacher. That’s why when it comes to leadership positions, in most cases I’ll opt for a talented, energetic, albeit weathered veteran over a shiny ingenue or a hyper-confident rookie.

Going with an untested leader is a crapshoot, plain and simple. Sometimes it works out well, but I’m convinced that — other things being relatively equal — we’ll get better results with more seasoned people at the helm.

Waiting for Irene with geeky gadgets and water bottles

I’m waiting in Boston for the inevitable arrival of Hurricane Irene, and after I collected provisions for a possible loss of electricity and water supply, my thoughts turned to how I connect with the outside world and get some work done if things go down. As someone who makes a living exchanging information and ideas, the possibility of being cut off from lines of communication sets off my anxiety.

Here’s the “kit” I assembled in response:

  • A portable Radio Shack AM/FM/NOAA radio, with new backup batteries;
  • Clock radio, with a new backup 9v battery;
  • My ancient cell phone, a flip-style dumb phone with an antennae;
  • Laptop with a typical Mac battery that will poop out after a few hours;
  • iPad with 3g connection & battery that should hold out for 9-10 hours;
  • iPod with a bunch of music and audio lectures stored;
  • Kindle e-reader with the portable clip-on light I bought at Barnes & Noble yesterday. and,
  • Extra notebooks and pens.

Basic human needs

Yup, this is the list of a professor and information junkie. But perhaps it also betrays my avoidance of dwelling upon our collective helplessness in facing the powers of a hurricane making a beeline this way. Even with a weaker hurricane, we are reduced to thinking about survival. The possibilities include:

  • Physical harm
  • Structural building damage
  • Basement flooding
  • No electricity
  • No water

Much of this is now in nature’s/God’s/Irene’s hands at this point. In the event of losing power and water, I’ve tried to accumulate enough provisions to last for several days. (Corn nuts or Jack Links “prime rib,” anyone?)

Different things

As I attend to my own situation, the threat of severe weather means different things to different workers. For those in the weather business, this is game time — the playoffs if not the Super Bowl. The same goes for workers in many public safety fields.

If you have a business in a store front that may be in harm’s way, there is considerable anxiety about damage. If that business is seasonal, there’s a likely loss of income in the midst of a difficult economy.

Retail workers at supermarkets, convenience stores, and hardware stores are dealing with lines of customers, many of whom waited until the last minute to get storm provisions.

Water bottles

Merely contemplating the loss of water over an extended period of time has triggered a sort of psychosomatic thirst for cold, clean water. As I filled up water bottles and containers, I found myself gulping down glasses of H2O.

One of the water bottles I filled was a thank-you gift for donating to the Mercy Corps, an international non-profit agency that supports disaster relief, sustainable development, and health and nutrition programs for those in dire need. The twist was not lost on me: All I had to do was turn on the tap to get as much clean water as I needed. Hundreds of millions of people — the very folks supported by the Mercy Corps — do not enjoy that luxury.

The possibilities I’m hoping to avoid — which at their very worst likely would be measured in months — are lifelong experiences for so many others.

When the bullying comes from a board member


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What happens when the perpetrator of workplace bullying is not a manager, peer, or subordinate, but rather a member of the organization’s board of directors or board of trustees?

“Board bullying,” as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. (Readers, if you know of any studies, please share in the comments!)

And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.


Bullying-type behaviors by board members come in several varieties:

1. Internal board interactions — Examples may include a dictatorial board chair who bullies, arm twists, and intimidates fellow board members, or perhaps extreme variations of groupthink and peer pressure used by board members to bludgeon other board members who take unpopular positions. Ostracism is another tactic used internally to isolate board members who aren’t going along with the script.

2. Board to staff interactions — Examples may include board members or a board chair exercising excessive pressure and intimidation with staff members to make certain business or policy decisions. In cases of very dysfunctional and ethically marginal organizations, board bullies may be among those who retaliate against staff who report illegalities or ethical transgressions.

3. Board self-dealing — This can include board members exerting pressure on fellow board members and staff to deliver inappropriate favors and benefits, such as “wink and a nod” agreements to provide them with monetary and other benefits paid for by the organization.

4. Sexual harassment — The most common situation is older male board members directing unwanted attention toward younger female staffers.

5. Enabling bullying at the staff levelBoard members may indirectly enable bullying at the staff level by failing to take action when employee concerns are brought to their attention. At times this neglect or willful ignorance may further expose the organization to liability.

Bullying-type behaviors vs. targeted bullying

As with standard-brand workplace bullying, it’s important to distinguish instances of incivility and disrespect from targeted, malicious bullying.

At times, the behaviors may be unintentional. One of the unfortunate realities of board service is that very few board members have any training or instruction on how to provide effective service. When combined with the same imperfections in interpersonal skills that we see in the everyday workplace, bullying-type behaviors may follow. This is the kind of stuff that often straddles the line between bullying and bad management.

On fewer occasions, the bullying behaviors are deliberate and targeted. These situations are very similar to classic instances of severe, targeted, and malicious workplace bullying.


As with employee-to-employee bullying situations, there are no easy solutions when these behaviors are committed by board members. Thus, it may be useful to consult an advice book, such as Gary & Ruth Namie’s The Bully at Work (2d ed., 2009).

If the behavior is more along the lines of incivility or disrespect, self-help measures such as confronting the individual may be effective, but a lot of this depends on the nature of the personal relationship between the individuals.

When the bullying clearly implicates legal protections — such as sexual harassment or retaliation for whistleblowing — it may be possible to file complaints internally and/or with appropriate enforcement agencies.

If the bullying is targeted and malicious, then the situation is much more difficult. Ultimately, those experiencing bullying-type behaviors at the hands of powerful board members often face the common dilemma of “should I stay, or should I go?”

Training and education

We need to do a better job of training board members, both generally and within specific organizations. This includes building awareness of when personal behaviors step over the line.

More research and understanding

Finally, we need to understand better this form of workplace bullying. Perhaps some enterprising professors or graduate students will take on this task. It should prove to be an interesting topic of study.


This entry was revised in November 2017.

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New jobs, new economy: Envisioning better ways to work and earn a living

Bravo to YES! magazine, whose Fall issue (link here) is devoted to examining how we can create new jobs and a new economy based on human and community needs and sustainable practices:

The jobs crisis has slipped off the political radar, but to ordinary Americans, jobs and the economy are top issues. How can we build strong local economies that sustain us in an era of ecological limits? What can we do to support each other in challenging times, and how can we rebuild the American Dream?

The Fall issue is rich with ideas and inspiration. Here are titles of some of the articles:

  • Who’s Building the Do-It-Ourselves Economy?
  • Work Less, Live More
  • 5 Steps to Redefine Making a Living
  • 7 Smart Solutions

YES! has been among the most thoughtful voices calling for a new economy, one not so much vested in “isms” (capitalism, socialism, etc.), but rather one emphasizing individual and community priorities and values in the context of a sustainable society.

It won’t come from Wall Street or Washington D.C.

Implicit in all of these pieces is the realization that human-level solutions to our economic crisis are highly unlikely to come from Wall Street or D.C. I couldn’t agree more. Our mega-institutions are simply too broken right now.

The idea of Big Business as the Great American Jobs Machine may have had some credibility decades ago, but certainly no more. Wall Street is about short-term gains and shareholder profits, and jobs creation ranks very low on its priority list.

As for many of our policy makers in the nation’s capital, the less said, the better. Few are talking about jobs; even fewer are taking the long-term view that we desperately need.

Grassroots entrepreneurship

In the meantime, encouraging and enabling entrepreneurial, socially responsible initiatives at the local, grassroots levels may provide some answers to the jobs crisis and to the question of how we build a sustainable and inclusive society.

Granted, these ideas need testing and refining, and frankly some of the new jobs described in YES! will leave people wrestling with how to pay the bills each month. But the more valuable point is that we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about how to live healthy, meaningful, and secure lives after decades of excess and credit-driven buying frenzy. Raising these questions is very threatening to those who have reaped the benefits of the status quo, but for everyone else, they are vital.


Related post

Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives?

A hotel housekeeper’s cart

During a recent hotel stay, I noticed that one of the housekeepers had arranged her cart so that it completely blocked entry to the room she was cleaning.

It is to my discredit that prior to this — despite my many hotel stays in recent years — I had not thought through how hotel workers were doing this for their own safety.

It took the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to heighten my awareness…

Case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has asked a New York trial court to dismiss sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund, who has been accused of attacking a hotel housekeeper.

Because of Strauss-Kahn’s prominence, the case has garnered international attention. Unfortunately, as we see in many sexual assault cases, the focus turned back on the accuser instead of the accused. And in this situation, the accuser was found to be less than credible: It appears that she had lied repeatedly to investigators about significant aspects of her life and her encounter with Strauss-Kahn.

In moving for dismissal of the charges, prosecutors never claimed that she lied about the alleged assault itself. Rather, the complainant’s projected lack of overall credibility on the witness stand was one of the main reasons the case fell apart. As legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin aptly points out, this should not be seen as exoneration for Strauss-Kahn:

As the prosecutors tell it, his behavior seems odious at best and criminal at worst. A housekeeper appeared in his hotel room, and some brief time later—maybe ten minutes, maybe a little more—she was spitting out his semen in the hallway. It is difficult to imagine a scenario that reflects anything but dishonor, if not criminal culpability, on this prominent man.

The real story goes unacknowledged

Regardless of how we regard the Strauss-Kahn prosecution, the real story about risks of sexual harassment and violence that face hotel workers has been lost in the celebrity aspects of the case. Thank goodness that Labor Notes, which remains a beacon of labor journalism, gets us beyond the headlines and the legal drama. As Jenny Brown reports (link here):

Hotel workers face injuries from the physical stress of their work, including the awkward lifting of heavy mattresses hundreds of times a day. But the hidden hazard of hotel work, housekeepers say, is customers’ assaults on their dignity and physical integrity.

Workers report that male customers expose themselves, attempt to buy sexual services, grab and grope them and, in some cases, attempt to rape them.

. . . “Customers offer money for massage—but they don’t want massage, they want something else,” said Elizabeth Moreno, an 18-year Chicago hotel worker. When she delivers room service items, male guests occasionally come to the door naked, she said.

The problem is so prevalent that hotel workers in Hawaii and San Francisco have resisted management efforts to make them wear skirts. Workers said the uniforms make them more vulnerable to groping in a job that requires bending over beds, tubs, and floors.

For more

Coverage of the Strauss-Kahn case has been voluminous. For those who want to learn more, news articles and commentary in the New York Times (link here) and the New Yorker (link here) are a good start.

But read the Labor Notes piece first. That’s where the more important story can be found.

Keyboard activism: Three ways to support the workplace anti-bullying movement

The Workplace Bullying Institute has started a neat little Facebook awareness initiative using Labor Day as a way of calling attention to workplace bullying. I’d like to build on that by suggesting three ways in which people can support this effort without leaving their keyboards:

1. American readers, urge your legislators to support the Healthy Workplace Bill

As many readers know, the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) is proposed legislation I’ve authored that provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and creates incentives for employers to prevent workplace bullying. If you’d like to see this bill become law, the most important thing you can do is to contact your state legislators and urge them to sponsor/co-sponsor/support the HWB.

For more information, go to the Healthy Workplace Bill website. Versions of the bill are active in about a dozen states as of this writing. We have Healthy Workplace Advocates groups in states across the country. You can become active as time and interest permit. But contacting your state legislators is Step One — no other form of legislative advocacy is as effective as direct contact with your elected officials.

2. Post online comments to articles about workplace bullying

Be an online “bird dog.” When articles about workplace bullying appear online, post a supportive comment that reinforces the seriousness of this destructive behavior and identifies ways to prevent and respond to it.

Do not underestimate the usefulness of this form of dialog and commentary. Many people read these online comments, and their impressions of a given subject often will be shaped as much by the tenor of the comments as by the articles themselves.

3. Spread the word within your online social networks

Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks are excellent places to spread the word about workplace bullying. Take a minute to post or share a relevant news item or blog post with friends and colleagues on your online networks.

If you’ve ever clicked a link to someone’s Facebook post, you know that this is an easy and effective way to share information. It is one of the most time and cost effective methods of public education.


If you have been doing these things or otherwise participating in this grassroots social movement, thank you for being a part of the solution. Your work is helping people and making a difference in our workplaces.


Disclosure note: I am the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, variations of which are being considered by state legislatures across the country. The HWB provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors. For more information, go to the Healthy Workplace Bill website.

What is academic tenure?

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When you hear the term “tenured professor,” what does it mean?

I’ve been asked this question many times over the years. Let me take a quick digression into the world of academe to offer a short explanation.

Unique to education

Tenure is pretty much unique to educational settings. Attaining tenured status as a professor usually means two things:

First, it conveys an enhanced level of protection for expression of academic freedom, grounded in the conviction that knowledge creation and sharing of ideas should be free from intimidation or retaliation.

Second, it provides significantly elevated levels of job security. Generally speaking, tenured professors can be dismissed only for failure to competently perform essential job responsibilities, serious misconduct, or severe economic necessity. In the United States, only unionized employees with strong collective bargaining agreements enjoy similar job protections.

Tenure is conferred by a single institution; thus, it is not automatically transferable. A tenured professor who wants to move elsewhere typically must negotiate with another institution to be appointed with tenure, or perhaps do what’s called a “look see” year as a visiting professor to determine whether a lateral hiring with tenure is a good match.

Ideally, the transition to tenured status transforms the employment relationship from one of contract to that of covenant. In other words, tenure should create a special bond, a mutual investment, between the institution and the professor. Umm, it doesn’t always work that way, as the academic workplace can be as full of ups and downs as any other. Nevertheless, most tenured professors take their responsibilities seriously and appreciate the benefits conferred by this status.

The tenure track

The path to earning tenure can be arduous. It’s a long-term probationary period, and for many candidates it can be quite stressful.

It starts with getting a tenure-track academic appointment, no small accomplishment in a tight academic job market. For that fortunate few, being a “tenure-stream,” “pre-tenure,” or “tenure-track” faculty member means that they’re still in the evaluation stage, which at most schools runs around five or six years.

During that time, their classes are observed by tenured faculty peers, their scholarship is reviewed by inside and outside referees, and their overall performance is tracked by an oversight committee, a department chair, and/or various deans.

Tenure procedures vary widely among colleges and universities, but basically they involve a faculty tenure committee or department making an initial recommendation based on a vote taken by secret ballot (with a supermajority often required), followed by a recommendation by a dean to the board of trustees. Unless there are unusual circumstances, the faculty vote is what really counts.

Ultimately, it boils down to this: A “yes” decision brings happiness and a sigh of relief. A “no” decision typically means the individual is given a year to find another position. It’s a high stakes, up or out game.

The big three, plus one

Teaching, scholarship, and service are the holy trinity of criteria for a tenure evaluation. At schools that emphasize classroom instruction, teaching counts the most. At schools that emphasize research, scholarship counts the most. Many schools strike a balance among the two. Service tends to rank a distant third in any event.

At some schools, collegiality is the unstated fourth criterion for tenure. If someone is a bully or a jerk or otherwise deemed untrustworthy, it may come back to haunt them. On the other hand, someone who is socially popular or well-liked may find colleagues willing to overlook substantive weaknesses in performance. At less-than-wonderful institutions, collegiality is hidden code for ensuring the homogeneity of the group.

Tenure votes

Most tenure votes are fair ones. Most faculty and administrators who have roles in tenure decisions understand what’s at stake and apply the evaluative criteria honestly and evenhandedly. Ultimately, despite the stress of the process, most tenure candidates succeed.

However, the world of academic employment is littered with accounts of unfair, unjust tenure denials, typically at schools where the institutional culture is dysfunctional, mean-spirited, corrupt, discriminatory, and/or politically divisive.

The future of tenure

Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive. In some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education. At the most dire end, the closures of departments and entire colleges are eliminating blocs of tenured positions in fell swoops.

In recent decades, we’ve seen a marked shift toward hiring for full-time, contract-based, non-tenured positions and part-time, adjunct positions. Many of these folks are carrying heavy teaching loads in return for very modest pay and little job security. More than a few of them have credentials worthy of tenure-track appointments.

If you see corollaries between the attack on tenure and the attack on unions, then give yourself an A.

Lots more

There’s a lot more I could say about tenure, but I think I’m at a point where readers working outside of academe have heard enough! For those who have wondered what tenure means in higher education settings, I hope this has been a helpful explanation.


Tenure provisions developed by American Association of University Professors are considered the industry standard in academe. For more information, go to the AAUP’s page on tenure.

For more of my blog articles on academic workplaces, go here. I’ve written lots of commentary on bullying & incivility in academe; the (mis)management of colleges and universities through consultants, strategic planning initiatives, and the like; and the state of academic freedom.

Personal note: I earned tenure at Suffolk University Law School in 2000. Later that summer, I visited relatives in Hawaii and came back with eight new Hawaiian shirts, the beginning of my post-tenure wardrobe. Aloha!


This post was revised in December 2016 and August 2021.

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