Editorial: Tufts must preserve academic and financial freedom in response to TUSM lawsuit

On July 1, 2017, Tufts implemented a new compensation policy at the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) that requires tenured faculty to support 40% of their salary through external research funding; faculty who do not meet these standards may face potential appointment reductions. In response, eight TUSM faculty members sued the university over the new compensation plan and research space allocation guidelines, asserting that the new policies violate preexisting tenure contracts for full-time employment that guaranteed “financial security” and “academic freedom.” TUSM Professors Michael Malamy and Brent Cochran discussed how the compensation plan was originally pitched as an incentive plan to stimulate research productivity. However, underlying financial issues fuel this decision; as of October 2019, TUSM was projected to run a deficit. Reducing faculty salaries may be intended as a cost-cutting measure, turning to increased external funding to assuage financial troubles. The administration has excluded these financial factors from justifications for the new policies, instead placing a demoralizing onus on faculty to reassess the value of their research in terms of the funding it can secure. 

In response to the lawsuit, Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, wrote in an email to the Daily that “Tufts University believes that [the faculty members’] claims are without merit,” and that the research space guidelines and compensation plan are “equitable, transparent and reward quality research and related productivity, which are integral to the School’s mission.” Contrary to these objectives, the new plan threatens professors’ financial security, decreases research productivity and limits the educational scope of the TUSM program. Above all, despite its intentions, the policy undermines a value that Tufts holds central to its identity: academic freedom. 

The tenured faculty members affected by this change maintain that this policy has negatively impacted their financial livelihood and undermined their research. Despite the distinguished careers, decades of teaching and research experience of TUSM professors, the 2017 Compensation Plan places punitive constraints on professors’ research that make it virtually impossible for them to fully and freely do their jobs. As part of the lawsuit, professors have brought up grievances such as having their lab space taken away and experiencing years of salary cuts. According to Professors Malamy and Cochran, tenured professors have either picked up short-term teaching contracts or have left entirely, further demonstrating this new policy’s detraction from Tufts’ vibrant academic life. 

Research space guidelines established in 2016 compound these challenges associated with acquiring sufficient funding; under the new policy, the university determines research space utilization based on funding per square foot and can subsequently downsize and reallocate underutilized spaces. In what the complaint deemed a “degenerative spiral,” professors conducting original research that does not yet attract sufficient federal funding would be deprived of the necessary lab space to generate the data critical to obtaining a grant, and their salaries would be reduced in turn. 

Further, Tufts’ policy hinders research productivity in ground-breaking areas that have yet to garner federal attention. Professor Henry Wortis, for example, was forced to terminate his perhaps life-saving research on age-related loss of resistance to infectious illnesses when Tufts suddenly closed his laboratory in 2016. With less financial support from the university, faculty are pressured into researching topics that attract external funding sources, effectively limiting their academic creativity and productivity. Moreover, with reduced federal funding for research under the current administration, it has become increasingly crucial that institutions like Tufts support research.

If Tufts continues to act on the 2017 Compensation Plan, it will also undermine the school’s commitment to advancing medical knowledge and fully educating its student body. This plan could lead to a decreased quality of education for TUSM students, as piling financial burdens make it difficult for professors to balance teaching, researching and acquiring funding. In addition, this policy hampers professors’ ability to engage with students outside of the classroom, for reduced funding and the threat of lab closure prevent faculty members from supporting more students in their labs. 

Ultimately, the administration has deprived its faculty of financial security, harmed their pursuit of academic endeavors and reduced professors’ ability to effectively mentor and teach students; in essence, Tufts infringed upon its core value of academic freedom and fractured its own sense of community. In order to restore financial security, academic accessibility and innovation to the medical school, TUSM must respond to the professors’ lawsuit by restoring the previous compensation plan and indemnifying affected faculty members, for this action would serve to revitalize trust, transparency and academic freedom in Tufts’ student and faculty communities. This progress is urgent as this issue threatens the values at the root of a Tufts education: what is our university — an academic environment at its core — if it fails to promote full engagement with intellectual pursuits?