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GOP Targets Tenure to Curb Classroom Discussions of Race, Gender

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GOP Targets Tenure to Curb Classroom Discussions of Race, Gender
Students walking
Students walk on the University of Texas campus. Republican leaders in Texas and other states are trying to restrict or eliminate tenure at public colleges and universities.
Ralph Barrera Austin American-Statesman via The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — When he blew the whistle on a university dean suspected of financial malfeasance, college professor Jeff Blodgett had to weather a fierce attack from the dean’s allies. “If I didn't have tenure,” he recalled, “they would have done their best to get rid of me.”

Blodgett, who has taught at four universities and is now a marketing professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, survived that ordeal in the University of Illinois system more than a decade ago. Now in his 31st year in higher education, he is president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, working with professors across the nation to preserve the institution of tenure itself. 

The American Association of University Professors defines tenure as an “indefinite appointment” for college and university professors that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as budget cuts or the discontinuation of a program.  

The nationwide faculty group initiated the modern-day concept of tenure in 1940, along with what is now the American Association of Colleges and Universities, to preserve academic freedom by protecting faculty teaching and research from political, corporate and religious pressure. 

Over the past 82 years, it has protected faculty members throughout campus turbulence, including efforts to purge alleged communists during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and fire faculty members who supported desegregation and racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

But now tenure is facing threats to its survival, at least in some parts of the country, as Republican politicians in Texas and other states push to restrict or eliminate it. In many instances, the anti-tenure campaign fuses contempt for what Republican detractors often see as a privileged class of elitists in America’s colleges and universities with continuing efforts to restrict the teaching of race and sexual orientation in the classroom. 

Last month, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the No. 2 political leader in Texas and the presiding officer in the Republican-led Senate, stirred alarm in national academic circles when he called for the elimination of tenure at public universities in the Lone Star State. His goal, he said, was to stop the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework the GOP has adopted as a catch-all term for lessons that view U.S. history and society through a racial lens.

Republican elected officials also have challenged tenure in Iowa, South Carolina, Wisconsin and other states in recent years.

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On March 5, the American Association of University Professors, known as AAUP, censured the Georgia university system’s governing board—whose members are appointed by the governor—for a new policy that removed faculty input from the process of firing tenured professors. A spokesperson for the board said the university system remains committed to academic freedom and due process, but the AAUP said the change “eviscerates tenure.”

“Because the attacks are at the state level, it makes it difficult to fight, with so many battles,” said Irene Mulvey, the national president of AAUP. “And these faculty are ready and willing to fight back because they can see the profession is on the line. The quality of education is on the line here, so I don’t think the faculty are ever going to give up.”

Academic Protection

Tenure can take years to acquire, and professors usually must prove their mettle by publishing rigorous research and demonstrating their value to the institution. Once achieved, tenured professors are protected from being fired for expressing controversial views in their classes, research or writing.  

Their tenured status is subject to periodic “post-tenure” review—often every six or seven years—and they still can be dismissed because of financial wrongdoing or sexual harassment. But tenured professors who are accused of misconduct should have a right to “due process” hearings involving an elected faculty committee, according to AAUP standards.

Patrick, who is seeking reelection to a third four-year term, issued his call to abolish tenure at a news conference last month, after the University of Texas-Austin Faculty Council voted 41-5 to pass a resolution affirming the faculty’s freedom to teach about race, gender and critical race theory. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last year signed legislation restricting how K-12 public schools teach students about race and racism. 

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

Patrick’s initiative applies to future tenure but, in a Feb. 18 statement, he said he will address already-tenured professors by shortening the period for comprehensive tenure reviews from every six years to annually. Patrick also would make teaching of critical race theory—a decades-old academic concept—a valid reason for firing a tenured professor. 

Some critics interpreted Patrick’s statements as a political gesture designed to stoke his conservative base in the runup to the March 1 Republican primary, which he won by beating five challengers with 75% of the vote. But Patrick’s power and his tenacity in pursuing pet conservative causes such as critical race theory suggest that tenure could be a prominent issue during next year’s legislative session.

Eliminating tenure at all public universities will be “one of my priorities,” Patrick declared after last month’s news conference.

The next legislative session won’t begin until January, but at least some of Patrick’s political foes already take the threat seriously. “Of course, it has a chance to pass,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, who chairs the Texas Democratic Party. Hinojosa described the Republican leader’s initiative as a “crazy” move that will “dramatically hurt” higher education in Texas. 

Abbott told a radio interviewer several days after Patrick’s call to abolish tenure that he will need to see further details before making a commitment. “That’s something that will have to be looked at,” he said.

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Senate Higher Education Chair Brandon Creighton, who would spearhead Patrick’s initiative in the upper chamber and who sponsored a bill in 2021 that would have shortened the time between tenure reviews, said university tenure “is definitely seen by many across the state as a pretext for advancing a very liberal and somewhat reckless agenda.”

“It’s a very healthy discussion to review some of the archaic provisions related to tenure to see if there’s an alternative that would be better—better for the university, better for the students’ learning experience and better for the future of the state going forward,” the Houston-area lawmaker said in a telephone interview.

Higher education groups assert that the elimination of tenure would stifle many Texas professors at the cutting edge of academia and research and prompt many of them to leave the state. Although university faculties tend to lean to the left along the political spectrum, Blodgett, of the University of Houston-Victoria, said they are far more politically diverse than critics portray them. 

“They try to paint all academics as left-wing, liberal wackos,” he said. “But that's not the case. Faculty come from across the entire political spectrum.”

In a survey several years ago by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 48% of faculty described themselves as liberal, 28% as middle-of-the-road and 12% as conservative.

‘Someone Looking Over My Shoulder’

Regardless of their political leanings, professors and their defenders warn that states that eliminate tenure risk eroding the quality of higher education and chasing away business opportunities.

In South Carolina, those concerns helped prompt lawmakers to postpone action on Republican state Rep. Bill Taylor’s proposal to eliminate tenure. Instead, they ordered an independent economic study of its potential effect. Taylor said he plans to resubmit the measure at the start of the next session in December.

“It’s basically on hold this session,” said Taylor, adding that he agreed to “slow the bill down” after it raised a “great amount of ruckus among universities and professors.”

Shawn Smolen-Morton, an associate professor of English who specializes in film studies at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, helped lead the opposition to Taylor’s bill. He said tenure is what allows him to fearlessly delve into socially controversial topics.

“I don’t have to worry about someone looking over my shoulder,” said Smolen-Morton, president of South Carolina’s AAUP. “I don’t have to worry about being censured. I don’t have to worry about being gagged. I just need to be professional and do my research and keep the students conversing within the bounds of academic discourse.”

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Mulvey, the national AAUP president, said professors with tenure are free, for example, to research climate change without worrying about pushback from university trustees who are oil company executives, or to criticize ballooning athletic budgets without fear of retribution from deep-pocketed athletic boosters. Without that protection, she said, faculty members would “self-censor” and “may think twice about what you’ll study.”

Jim Klein, professor of history at Del Mar College, a two-year community college in Corpus Christi, Texas, and president of the Texas Association of College Teachers, said tenured faculty members also have an obligation to report campus malfeasance or unethical behavior, a watchdog role they’d be reluctant to play without tenure protections.

“We’re really under a pretty strong obligation to report that,” he said, “because there are a lot of people here … who don’t have that same protection.”

The number of tenured professors already is declining amid the steady curtailment of academic budgets. An increasing number of university teaching jobs are being filled by adjunct professors or part-time faculty as budget-strapped schools look for ways to save money.

The National Center for Education Statistics, citing only full-time faculty at institutions with a tenure system, says 45% were tenured in 2019-20, a drop from 56% in 1993-94. The percentage of institutions permitting tenure has also shrunk during that period, from 62% percent to 57%, according to the center, which is part of the education department’s Institute of Education Sciences.

“The real threat to tenure has been … that over the last 30 or 40 years, an increasing number of appointments are made off the tenure track,” said Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay, who has written two books on academic freedom. 

Mulvey, a mathematics professor who was elected AAUP president in 2020, said that after watching Patrick’s news conference, she knew she had to mobilize the group’s chapters nationwide.

“It’s not the worst attack we’ve seen against higher education, but absolutely this is the worst attack we’ve seen against tenure,” she said.

“The real losers,” she said, “will be the students of Texas, denied a meaningful and truthful education.”

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