May 23, 2023 - Education

Tenure on the ropes in Texas

Illustration of a cracked mortar board.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Texas lawmakers are poised to dismantle tenure, a hallmark of academic job protection.

Driving the news: The Texas House on Monday gave initial approval to a version of Senate Bill 18 that would let tenure continue — but would allow politically appointed overseers to fire faculty for reasons including "professional incompetence" or "conduct involving moral turpitude."

Why it matters: The issue strikes at political control of universities — and the ability of Texas research institutions to lure talent as other states maintain a tenure system.

  • One University of Texas department chair, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivities about the matter, told Axios that sought-after junior faculty have been bringing up the issue during recruitment visits to Austin as they weigh job offers.

What they're saying: "Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase 'academic freedom,' and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement last year.

  • "What we're trying to achieve is to make sure that productivity is maximized and that no one certainly relaxes based on lifetime guaranteed employment," bill author state Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe, said on the Senate floor last month, per the Texas Tribune.

The other side: Republican lawmakers want "to remake us into a right-wing institution that fits their politics, instead of a place of academic freedom where students and faculty and staff work to discover how the world works," Stuart Reichler, a UT professor of practice who represents non-tenure faculty at the Faculty Council, tells Axios.

Plus: "As a climate scientist in Texas, tenure's essential for me," Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, wrote on Twitter recently. "Without it, I might've stayed silent about my findings. It's not about job security, it's about the freedom to share science without fear."

  • "Some might think silencing climate scientists is good. But tenure doesn't just protect views you disagree with, it protects ALL views. Consider a conservative professor losing their job for supporting Trump. Without tenure, this can happen."

The intrigue: Amid complaints about cancel culture on university campuses, tenure has traditionally protected professors who want to pursue new paths of study or speak out on issues in the public eye.

Our thought bubble: Lately, Texas' economic success and pro-business climate has drawn talent here from around the world, but the Legislature is about to test whether it can prompt a potential brain drain from the Lone Star state.

What we're watching: How the Texas House and Senate hash out differences between their two versions of the bill.


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