Editor’s note: In previous articles about tenure (Historical Roots of Tenure, How Tenure Benefits Us All) , we emphasized the importance of tenure to protect academic freedom and to maintain high standards of quality for instruction and research at the University of Hawai‘i. In this third, in a series of articles, we take a look at the value of tenure for universities, students and the broader community.


Today, we recognize this as the formula that helped change the world, an expression of Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking scientific work on the theory of relativity. The formula, based on his exploration of the mathematics of relativity, serves as the basis of modern physics and has shaped our understanding of mass and energy.

In 1905, these were revolutionary concepts that the public had a hard time grasping and accepting. Fortunately, the German physicist was welcomed into the circle of Europe’s most eminent physicists and given professorships in Zurich, Prague and Berlin. In those positive academic environments, Einstein flourished even more, conducting further research and teaching, which led to more discoveries, including the existence of black holes.

But what if Einstein was unable to find universities that were committed to intellectual exploration and embraced academic freedom? Where would the world be today without his theories if he were not given the freedom and ability to explore?

The Virtuous Cycle

On the other side of the world, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, two years later, the University of Hawaiʻi was founded in 1907 under the Morrill Act as a land-grant college of agriculture and mechanic arts near Thomas Square park. It was a bold, strong statement that Hawai‘i was prepared to make its mark in the world.

The University of Hawai‘i must drive innovation, uncover new knowledge, and share their findings with students, and the local and global communities.  This is the mission of the University of Hawai‘i and other distinguished R-1 universities. It is also the core, underlying rationale for providing faculty tenure at these universities. More than a mere pat on the back for good work, tenure demonstrates a university’s commitment and recognition to be a part of a cycle and process that propels humankind forward.

Tenure has a positive, distinctive, multiplier effect in the community. When a university grants faculty members tenure, it shows the university is committed to being a high quality institution by giving faculty the license and freedom to expand and explore their chosen disciplines. This results in quality teaching and outstanding students, who in turn can go on to pursue further research to make a positive contribution for our society and tomorrow’s world.

The Tenure Process

The tenure process is a quality control mechanism. When a new employee joins an organization, it’s customary to have a probation period that could last as long as six months. This period allows the organization that hired the employee to assess the new employee’s skills and aptitude for the job.

In a higher education system, newly-hired faculty members who have not earned tenure from another comparable university, are also subject to a probationary period. The probation period allows time to assess eligible, full-time faculty members before they are awarded tenure at a UH campus.

In the current faculty contract negotiated by UHPA with the UH administration and the UH Board of Regents, UH faculty members who hold positions in teaching and/or research and/or extension and/or specialized work are all eligible for tenure at one of the 10 UH system campuses, recognizing that all faculty contribute to a well-rounded learning experience for students. (The contract devotes an entire section to tenure and promotions. You can read it by clicking here.) 

Ensuring Quality Right from the Start

Tenure conditions and length are established when a letter of hire (or offer) is extended to the individual faculty to join the UH. This letter clearly states the terms and conditions of employment between the employer and faculty member. These letters of hire are subject to review by UHPA since these letters contain details concerning obtaining tenure and other impact on working conditions.

After nearly a year and a half of discussions, UHPA and UH administration signed a memorandum of understanding regarding letters of hire in January 2017. They mutually agreed that all Unit 7 members must receive a written offer or letter of hire that specifically detailed all the terms and conditions offered, and thereafter, accepted as an enforceable letter of hire through the collective bargaining process. This was a major step toward providing greater clarity, transparency, and consistency for faculty as well as the UH.

A Long Probation Period

Unlike professionals in other settings, a university’s probationary period far exceeds the typical six months.  At UH, the probationary period is a minimum of five years not to exceed seven years. The current contract does provide, when appropriate, a probationary period which can be shortened, lengthened, or eliminated. For specific probation periods, click on the University of Hawaii’s chart.

As a result of the extraordinary adjustments that UH faculty had to rapidly implement at the start of the pandemic last year, the UH administration and UHPA signed a memorandum of understanding in July of 2020 that allows existing probation periods to further extend for an additional year as long as the overall period does not exceed beyond eight years.

Ongoing Quality Control

Earning tenure is a rigorous process. Faculty members must demonstrate a high degree of professional competence and expertise in their respective field. Only after years of work, supported by numerous documents of evidence, does a faculty member complete her or his probationary period and earn her or his tenure.

Once faculty receive tenure, this does not mean they can rest on their laurels. Tenure is not the end of the academic journey, but a tool to aid in their future journeys. Tenure is followed by ongoing assessments every five years from administrators and colleagues who must determine if tenured faculty members are maintaining their commitment to furthering knowledge and sharing expertise with students, colleagues, and the institution they are committed to serve.

Ongoing Collaboration

Tenure should not be considered as an employee benefit or a reward for faculty. Rather, It is a benefit and reward that serves the institution itself, its students, the broader community, and out State. Since retaining high-quality faculty is important to the University of Hawai‘i, tenure must continue to play an important and vital role in the institution and continuously evolve in the Faculty contract.  UHPA is committed to continuing to work with the UH administration to develop a resolution that will result in a report on the reasoning and value of tenure to present to the Senate Committee on Higher Education before the start of the next legislative session in 2022.