New Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Discusses Interpretation of Tenure Protections

Ruth O'Meara-Costello

Tenure is an essential employment protection for university faculty, but the exact scope of its protection is sometimes unclear or ambiguous. In a new decision this week, the Massachusetts SJC didn’t reach firm conclusions about faculty rights, but articulated some principles for evaluating their scope.

In 2017 and 2019, Tufts University implemented a new plan that required tenure science faculty to obtain sufficient extramural funding to fund at least half of their salaries. Faculty who failed to do so faced salary reductions or treatment as part-time.  They also risked losing lab space. A group of faculty members sued, alleging that the reductions violated their employment contracts with Tufts. The trial court granted summary judgment, but the Supreme Judicial Court took the case on appeal, and reversed in part in Wortis v. Trustees of Tufts College. Its holding is an important affirmation of the rights of tenured faculty, and provides some useful guidance for faculty members in understanding the courts’ approach to faculty employment contracts more generally.

First, the general principles, which the SJC applied to the set of university policies that it concluded made up employment contracts here. Courts in Massachusetts interpreting university always articulate two “fundamental principles”—first, that they use “the standard of reasonable interpretation—what meaning the party making the manifestation, the university, should reasonably expect the other party to give it.” In other words, courts ask how the university should expect professors to interpret the language of a contract. And second, that courts “are chary about interfering with academic decisions made by private colleges and universities.” The SJC here added a third important note: “In evaluating the standard of reasonable expectation, we also recognize that contracts are written, and are to be read, by reference to the norms of conduct and expectations founded upon them. This is especially true of contracts in and among a community of scholars, which is what a university is.” (cleaned up).

Applying those principles here, the SJC held that that because the contract documents are clear that tenured professors cannot be terminated without cause or financial exigency, there must be some limitation on the ability to cut salaries: “If their salaries could be reduced at will, this contractual provision would be of very limited value.” The SJC found that references in Tufts’ policies to “economic security” as a feature of tenure were not “merely hortatory.” However, it concluded, they were ambiguous, and further evidence regarding practices and customs at Tufts and other similar institutions was necessary to determine exactly when a salary reduction was permissible. The SJC therefore reversed the Superior Court’s grand of summary judgment, allowing the professors’ case to move forward. The lab space reductions met a different fate—the SJC found that a promise of “economic security” did not mean that a professor’s lab space could not be reduced.

The SJC’s decision is notably not particularly deferential to the university’s interpretation of the contract. Universities generally try to shield their decision-making by arguing that courts should not question their academic judgment or limit their discretion. This decision makes it clear that courts in Massachusetts should not be shy about questioning university actions that violate contractual commitments to faculty or students.


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