Dan Patrick’s plan to end tenure at Texas universities could have dire consequences, experts warn
One of the most high-profile new laws Texas passed last year was Senate Bill 3, a ban on teaching “critical race theory” in grades K-12, which went into effect in December.
The measure was met with rebuke from some academics. Critics say the law attempted to fix a problem that doesn’t exist: Critical race theory is an area of study most often used in law schools, and there’s little evidence it’s even being taught in Texas grade schools. Others argue the proponents of laws like SB 3 don’t even know what critical race theory is, and that such legislation instead creates a chilling effect on other areas of study like slavery and the Civil War.
Members of the faculty council at the University of Texas at Austin voted 41-5 last month to reject any efforts by the Legislature to restrict or dictate what they could teach. The measure stated that they "stand with (their) K-12 colleagues throughout the country” who may be affected by “pernicious legislation when they seek to teach the truth in U.S. history and civics education."
Such faculty council resolutions are typically statements of principle. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took it as a direct challenge to the authority of the Legislature and wasted no time in striking back.
"Apparently this small group, they don’t understand that we in the Legislature represent the people of Texas," Patrick said during a press conference at the state Capitol on Feb. 18. “We are those who distribute taxpayer dollars. We are the ones who pay their salaries. The parents are the ones who pay tuition. And, of course, we’re going to have a say in what the curriculum is."
The Texas Legislature won't meet again for more than nine months, but Patrick has already identified one of his top priorities for the next session: abolishing academic tenure at all Texas public universities, as part and parcel of his plan to extend a ban on teaching what the state defines as critical race theory to institutions of higher education.
Academic tenure is designed to protect certain professors from being dismissed without good cause. In theory, it's meant to protect academic freedom.
Patrick argued that protection was being abused and had to come to an end. Under his proposal, already tenured professors would be reviewed annually, rather than every six years under current policy. Patrick added that he'd also seek to change what constitutes good cause for revoking tenure, officially making the teaching of “critical race theory” as defined by state law grounds for tenure revocation.
UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell responded with an extended defense of his faculty and the tenure system.
“Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members,” Hartzell wrote, “it would also hurt Texas students, who would not be able to stay in the state knowing that they will be learning from the very best in the country.”
Now the Texas Faculty Association, the organization that represents university employees, is bracing for battle.
"It's an outright attack on higher education," said Pat Heintzelman, the association’s president. "We have to fight this at the Legislature, and we’re going to get started soon. We are starting."
Higher education makes up a powerful lobbying force, but Patrick tends to get his way on his top priorities. He's just announced plans to merge the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee into the Senate Education Committee, the latter of which oversaw the passage of SB 3. That could be the first step towards expanding the state's ban on teaching critical race theory to the university level and ending tenure.
Heintzelman argued that tenure is a critical protection to allow professors to do their jobs, not simply a blanket protection that allows professors to get away with behavior that would be unacceptable in other professions.
"Tenured faculty have to meet standards," Heintzelman said. "They have to fight for tenure. They have to meet the rigorous standards, you know, for teaching, research and service, and they still have post tenure review afterward. They’re held accountable before and after they get tenure."
Less than a quarter of the people teaching at American colleges and universities are tenured, but such a move could have ramifications for all faculty members.
That's the concern of Peter René, who teaches political science at Texas Southern University. He's an adjunct professor – in other words, not tenured.
"If tenure goes away and professors, full-time professors are not protected, then our status would have to change,” he said. “We could not stay on the same status because there would (be) no differentiation between us and full professors.”
One of the main reasons for universities to hire adjunct professors is to teach entry-level courses, giving tenured professors the freedom to do research and teach more advanced courses. And there's always the hope that, with a foot in the door, an adjunct might eventually be able to get on a tenure track.
"If there’s no such thing as a tenure track anymore, what is the appeal to be an adjunct?" René asked.
René stressed that he would stay with TSU even if tenure were eliminated. He's convinced that a law banning tenure would not stand up to a court challenge, which he is sure would follow the passage of such a law.
But he also believes that other adjuncts would leave, and that they wouldn't be the only ones.
Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and the author of the book Understanding Academic Freedom. Reichman said eliminating tenure at Texas state universities would lead to an exodus of the system's most talented faculty members.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if Texas eliminates tenure, the quality of the faculty — and not just in controversial disciplines like gender studies or history or English, but in engineering, in physics, in law, in wherever — that the quality will go down, because good people will say, ‘I don’t want to go work there. There’s no job security. I’ll be reviewed every year and they could fire me on a whim,'" Reichman said.
He added that this could have serious consequences down the road for the state's economy.
"A strong higher education system, it contributes tremendous amount to a state’s well-being,” Reichman said. “It produces jobs. It produces people trained to do important things.”
Neal Hutchens, who teaches higher education at the University of Mississippi, said tenure may not be perfect, but that eliminating it wholesale would have devastating consequences for Texas's public university system.
"Texas is an example of a state that through decades has really built some really high-quality colleges and universities, certainly nationally known and leading and even with recognition internationally," Hutchens said. “To put a proposal on the table that really could wreck that, that’s astounding to me.”
Texas eliminating tenure could also have nationwide consequences. Hutchens said some Republican-leaning states will look at Texas as a model and pass similar laws – particularly as the controversy over “critical race theory” dominates election-year politics. South Carolina, for example, has itself considered passing a bill to eliminate tenure for new university hires.
On the other hand, Hutchens said some states may swing in the opposite direction and try to strengthen their higher education systems.
"States that instead say, ‘you know what, we’re going to continue to protect and even try to strengthen our higher education systems, including the academic freedom rights for our professors,'” Hutchens said, “I think they actually gain a competitive advantage because I think that they’re going to be places that people see as more desirable to work."
All of this is more than theoretical. Henry Reichman noted there are examples of colleges and universities that have eliminated tenure before. He cited the example of Chatham University in Pennsylvania. Just a few days before Patrick's announcement, Chatham trustees decided they would restore their tenure system, which the school had previously abolished as a cost-saving measure during a financially bleak period.
"While they have since recovered financially, enrollments are on the rise, the place is doing better, and they have found that now they want to expand their faculty and they can’t attract and retain the best people that they would like," Reichman said. "I think that’s a lesson to be learned by people, that when you eliminate tenure, you may regret it.”
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