A New York appellate court recently held that two New York University (NYU) professors’ claims can proceed against the school on the theory that its faculty handbook is a legally binding document. The decision sends a message to educational institutions that they must uphold the promises they make in faculty handbooks in and other written policies.
The one-page decision from the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in the case of Monaco v. New York University & New York University School of Medicine overturned a lower court’s ruling that NYU’s faculty handbook is not contractually binding. Underlying the dispute was a policy reducing the salaries of professors if they failed to meet fundraising quotas for their research. Two tenured NYU School of Medicine professors had their salaries reduced as a result of this policy. The professors sued NYU and alleged that this policy conflicts with the handbook which, in its definition of tenure, “guarantees both freedom of research and economic security and thus prohibits a diminution in salary.” The appellate court agreed with the professors and cited precedent establishing that handbooks “form part of the essential employment understandings between a member of the Faculty and the University” and thus “have the force of contract.”
While FIRE does not take any specific position on tenure policy, tenure has historically served as a critical bulwark against infringements on a professor’s right to speak and teach freely. It is vital that these freedom are protected during a time when professors are being investigated and punished for their classroom comments, social media usage, and even for writing a play. Tenured professors can typically be fired only for adequate cause and only with due process, which gives them the confidence to express dissent and teach innovatively without fear of immediate dismissal. As private schools such as NYU are not bound by the Constitution, tenure provisions in faculty handbooks are often the only way a professor’s freedom of speech and academic freedom are protected at many colleges and universities.
FIRE applauds this decision for correctly allowing the professors’ case to proceed on the theory that the handbook’s provisions are legally binding. The decision strengthens academic freedom, and allows diverse views and pedagogy to flourish at private universities.