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UT president defends tenure after Lt. Gov. Patrick proposes to end it at all public universities

 The University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell gives the state of the university address on Sept. 24, 2021.
Michael Gonzalez
The Texas Tribune
The University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell gives the state of the university address on Sept. 24, 2021.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell said Monday that removing tenure for faculty would hurt the university’s ability to hire the best professors, countering a proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last week to eliminate tenure for new hires at all public universities in Texas.

“Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members, it would also hurt Texas students, who would not be able to stay in state knowing that they will be learning from the very best in the country,” Hartzell said in a letter to the university community. “It would also increase the risk of universities across the state making bad decisions for the wrong reasons.”

Academic tenure is the indefinite appointment for distinguished university faculty that guarantees lifetime job security and can only be terminated under extraordinary circumstances.

On Friday, Patrick had laid out a proposal for the 88th Legislative session that would end tenure for new hires and add the teaching of critical race theory, a university discipline that studies how race and racism have impacted social and local structures in the United States, as grounds to revoke a professor’s tenure.

Conservatives over the past year have used “critical race theory” as a broad label to attack progressive teachings and books in college and K-12 schools that address race and gender.

Hartzell did not address that proposal in his letter. But he said broadly that said tenure is what keeps high quality professors at the university and “gives them the security and long-run horizon to tackle hard problems.”

He wrote that while some people might argue universities sometimes make mistakes in the tenure process or that it can lead to “unproductive behavior,” he argues those instances are rare and the university has processes in place to ensure tenured faculty are contributing to the university and research community. At UT-Austin, there is an annual review process and a comprehensive review process every six years. Patrick had proposed changing that six-year review to every year.

Patrick said Friday his latest priority is in response to the UT-Austin Faculty Council after it passed a nonbinding resolution Monday to reaffirm instructors’ academic freedom to teach on issues of racial justice and critical race theory.

One day after the resolution passed, Patrick signaled on Twitter that he would continue the fight against teaching the discipline in the next legislative session.

“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote on Twitter. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed.”

But academics said Friday that tenure is intended to protect faculty and academic freedom from exactly the kind of politicization being waged by Patrick.

“This kind of attack is precisely why we have faculty tenure,” said Michael Harris, a professor at Southern Methodist University studying higher education. “The political winds are going to blow at different times, and we want faculty to follow the best data and theory to try to understand what’s happening in our world.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

From The Texas Tribune

Kate McGee covers higher education for The Texas Tribune. She joins after nearly a decade as a reporter at public radio stations across the country. She most recently covered higher ed at WBEZ in Chicago, but started on the education beat in 2013 at KUT in Austin. She has also worked at NPR affiliates in Washington D.C., New York City and Reno, Nevada. Kate was born in New York City and primarily raised in New Jersey. She graduated from Fordham University. Her work has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now, and The Takeaway.