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Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. In economies where higher education is provided by the private sector, tenure also has the effect of helping to ensure the integrity of the grading system. Without tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.

One cost of a tenure system is that some tenured professors may not use their freedom for the common good. Tenure has been criticized for allowing senior professors to become unproductive, shoddy, or irrelevant. Universities themselves bear this risk: they pay dearly whenever they guarantee lifetime employment to an individual who proves unworthy of it. Universities therefore exercise great care in offering tenured positions, first requiring an intensive formal review of the candidate's record of research, teaching, and service. This review typically takes several months and may include the solicitation of confidential letters of assessment from highly regarded scholars in the candidate's research area. Some colleges and universities also solicit letters from students about the candidate's teaching. A tenured position is offered only if the tenure-granting groups on campus (often a mixture of both senior faculty and senior administrators) judge that the candidate is likely to remain a productive scholar and teacher for life.

In higher education, tenure is a professor’s permanent job contract, granted after a probationary period of six or seven years. A faculty member in such a probationary position is said to be in a “tenure-track appointment"