The Value of Tenure

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Adam covered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s settlement with Steven Salaita: $600,000, plus $275,000 in legal fees. The school had revoked his tenured professorship in August 2014, after Salaita posted a series of contentious tweets about Israel.

No matter what you think about Salaita or his tweets, $600,000 looks like a lot of money. And it is! But not compared to what Salaita lost: tenure, which would have guaranteed him a job for life—or as long as he wanted it anyway.

At his negotiated salary of $85,000 per year, $600k amounts to the equivalent of seven years’ wages, and that’s not accounting for promotion increases, health benefits, retirement contributions, cost of living adjustments, and other standard perks of full-time academic employment.

Salaita is 40 years old. Assuming he had occupied his UIUC professorship and held it until retirement at the conservative age of 65, that’s $2,125,000 in real wages. Assuming a 2.5 percent annual cost of living increase, 25 years of work is worth more like $2.9 million. Compared to the guarantee of at least middle-class comfort for rest of his career, $600,000 doesn’t look like much.

As for Salaita, he has taken a position as Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. A prestigious post, but it’s only a one-year appointment. After 2015-2016, Salaita might be able to renew his position. The AUB has considered establishing tenure a number of times, but as of a year ago a system had not yet been established.

And so, like so many, come spring Salaita will hustle for his next gig. He’ll probably have no trouble finding one. But the value of a tenured post comes partly from avoiding hustle, and reinvesting that time in research and teaching instead. What’s that worth, especially in a precarious economy like the present? A lot more than $600,000, that’s for sure.