More Threats to Faculty Tenure on the Horizon

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Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick held a press conference today to respond to the Faculty Council of the University of Texas, which recently passed a resolution reemphasizing the importance of academic freedom at the university and denouncing political interventions in the university curriculum.

At the center of the dispute is the ongoing political fight over “critical race theory.” Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have taken interest in how topics of race and social justice are taught and discussed in schools. The focus of the initial wave of lawmaking was on K-12 education, but the legislative cannons are now being aimed at colleges and universities. As I’ve written before, the bills are generally a sloppy mess that cause real problems for legitimate educational efforts.

Patrick is all too happy to escalate the fight. “Tenure, it’s time that that comes to an end in Texas.” Patrick likes to make bold declarations, but he is no backbencher who can be ignored. The lieutenant governor is arguably the most powerful political office in the Texas state government. Patrick is elected in his own right through a statewide ballot (he was reelected to the office in 2018), and he serves as the presiding officer of the state senate. In floating his proposal to end tenure, he claimed to have the support of the chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and of university regents across the state (regents are appointed by the governor). Patrick declared that he wants to make an overhaul of state universities a “top priority” of the next legislative session, and he appears to be staking his future political ambitions on making professors into a punching bag.

Tenure has long been the cornerstone of academic freedom in American higher education. It is all well and good for universities to promise to recognize academic freedom, but it is the procedural protections and job security of tenure that make that promise meaningful. In practice, instructors and scholars without tenure protections are easily silenced and dismissed.

Texas will not be alone in reconsidering the future of tenure at public universities. The regents of the Georgia university system have already moved forward a proposal to weaken tenure protections. Regents and lawmakers in other states have similarly set their sights on tenure.

The prospects for academic freedom — and ultimately for creative scholarly research and quality teaching — will be dim in Texas and in other states if politicians like Patrick have their way. When I was growing up in Texas, the state bragged of its desire to construct world-class institutions. State politicians in recent years have largely abandoned that aspiration. It remains to be seen whether Texas will be able to preserve even a mediocre system of higher education in the years ahead.

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