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Tenure on trial?

State politicians reevaluate university protections for professors


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Tenure on trial?

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a shockwave through the academic community in February when he said he wanted to end tenure at the state’s public universities. His comment wasn’t the only recent challenge to a long-standing practice in higher education.

South Carolina legislators proposed a bill in November that would have ended university-level tenure in state institutions by limiting new-hire contracts to no more than five years. Hawaii Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, a Democrat, proposed a bill in January to restrict who is eligible for tenure. Earlier this month, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the Florida Board of Governors to impose five-year post-tenure reviews.

Tenure, which makes faculty positions permanent except in certain extreme situations, has been considered a safeguard for academic freedom since 1940. The practice protects professors from losing their job even if they hold or express controversial views. But experts are divided on whether tenure is as beneficial as its supporters claim.

The American Association of University Professors said Patrick’s statement made “perverse and duplicitous threats.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a statement saying “academic freedom is the lifeblood of American universities.”

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director at FIRE, said calls to end or restrict tenure have been “growing in intensity.” The practice has support from both sides of the political aisle, but Republicans are more likely to question the practice, he said.

FIRE’s vice president of programs, Peter Bonilla, said calls to end tenure can come from both camps, with people on the right typically more concerned about increasing liberalism and people on the left taking issue with preferred treatment for tenured faculty compared with non–tenure track employees.

“Tenure has been pretty instrumental in protecting unpopular voices,” Cohn said, adding that calls to end tenure are “counterproductive” for conservatives in academia. He said government and institutional groups may need “to ensure that the system is working properly, but wholesale attacks on tenure protections do undermine the ability of faculty to speak their minds.”

Jay Schalin, senior fellow at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, acknowledged that tenure sometimes helps protect academic freedom for nonconforming professors. But he pointed out that the practice only protects professors who already have tenure. For up-and-coming professors with unpopular opinions, tenure may be out of reach, he said: “If somebody’s been teaching at a school and gets denied tenure, that’s as good as firing them.”

According to Schalin, when tenure was first instituted, it protected faculty from encroaching government pressure. Now, he said, threats to academic freedom rarely if ever come from the government. They often come from a professor’s own school.

Schalin said he thinks most states could benefit from ending tenure, but he doesn’t believe just getting rid of tenure is the answer, and he hesitated to suggest that all schools do away with the practice. He wants to see robust safeguards for academic freedom in place. Instead of tenure, Schalin recommends that schools solidify academic freedom in their bylaws, mission statements, and teacher contracts before moving to a contract renewal model of employment.

Bonilla at FIRE said schools can institute policies giving all professors the same level of academic freedom: “You could make those expectations: Not the ceiling for which all faculty aspire to one day have the protection of, but rather the floor that anyone employed as professor should reasonably expect from their institutions.”

Cohn said he is concerned about any government efforts to reform tenure that do not have faculty backing. “Legislatures should be hesitant to meddle with tenure,” he said. “There is a role to be played here, but it should be in supporting academic freedom and not undermining it.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.

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