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Public universities could no longer offer tenure for professors under Texas Senate bill

Martin do Nascimento

A measure that would end tenure for professors in public universities is making its way through the Texas Senate.

The proposal is the latest attempt by Senate leadership to strong-arm faculty they claim hide behind “academic freedom” in order to inappropriately express their ideologies.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, told the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education on Thursday that Senate Bill 18 “ends the practice of guaranteed lifetime employment of tenured professors.”

“We’ve seen the brand and the reputation of several of our colleges and universities, including our flagships, that certainly have been damaged because of the actions of a few vocal and fringe tenure faculty,” he said.

Offering tenure to university professors began in the 1940s as a way to “safeguard academic freedom, according to the American Association of University Professors. The group defines tenure as “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.”

Under Senate Bill 18, public universities in Texas would not be able to offer professors tenure after Sept. 1.

Professors who currently have tenure would not be affected. However, Creighton said his measure “opens and furthers the conversation about the existing tenure that we have … and the question of whether or not tenure is working as intended.”

Many professors and organizations representing college faculty oppose the measure, saying doing away with the tenure system could have a significant effect on cutting-edge research, as well as the finances of universities and the state.

Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin, told lawmakers her tenured position allowed her to conduct research that ultimately brought $10 million in grant funding to her department.

“It took years of research, and failed experiments, and eventually successes, to be able to get to where I am today,” Gore told the Senate panel Thursday. “Tenure allowed me to take the kind of risks that were needed to do cutting-edge research and make discoveries to change our understanding of the developing brain.”

Jeffrey Gardner, a professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University, said tenure also serves as a protection for those teaching in universities.

Gardner is on track to be a tenured professor next spring. He told lawmakers that, when he was looking for jobs, he only considered tenured positions.

“There are several reasons why but, foremost, I wanted to feel assured that my research cannot be potential grounds for termination,” Gardner said. “ I view tenure not as the finish line, but as a safeguard marker to continue teaching and publishing research even about topics, issues and findings that we might disagree with.”

Gardner and others argue that Texas would no longer attract top academic talent were SB 18 to become law.

Florida and Texas

Adam Kissel, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, disagreed, saying tenured professors currently have speech and academic freedom.

Kissel argued junior faculty members are negatively affected by the system and must “self-censor” to stay on track towards tenure.

He added tenure should no longer be in place because universities “no longer act like elite institutions.”

“We have thousands of professors who think they are just in one more democratic institution as another political player on the scene,” Kissel told the Senate panel. “We used to give colleges deference because we could trust them … but they broke our trust when they became activists.”

This line of thinking seems to resonate with Republicans in the Texas Senate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared a war on the tenure system last year after faculty at the UT Austin voted to reaffirm a professor’s right to teach about race and racial justice.

However, the bill may not gain traction in the Texas House. Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has saidhe opposes such plans.

Texas is not the first state to consider a proposal to end tenure.

Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that requires professors with tenure to undergo a review with the state every five years. Many have said such a law makes it hard for professors to retain tenure.
Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.