AUSTIN (The Texas Tribune) — A year and a half ago, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick shocked the higher education world when he pledged to eliminate tenure for faculty at Texas public universities, a century-old practice that provides continuous employment so professors can teach without fear of political interference or retribution.
Last month, the Texas Senate passed a bill to kill tenure. Faculty members around the state, some university leaders and House Speaker Dade Phelan panned it as a bad idea that would hurt faculty recruitment and retention, reduce protections for conservative faculty who might have unpopular opinions, and damage the prestige of Texas’ research universities.
On Saturday, in a surprise move, senators backed off their position and accepted the House’s counterproposal, which solidifies tenure in state law and places more power to make future changes to tenure in the hands of state lawmakers rather that individual university system boards.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the bill’s sponsor, called Senate Bill 18 “a strong step forward … that will improve accountability and create true guardrails against faculty that are not in good standing with the university.
“This is a productive and necessary improvement that will benefit Texas students and taxpayers,” Creighton told his fellow senators Saturday as they considered the House version of the legislation.
The legislation now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott for approval.
Patrick vowed to ban tenure in Texas last year after a group of University of Texas at Austin faculty issued a resolution in defense of academic freedom. Specifically, their resolution was in response to the Legislature’s decision in 2021 to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in K-12 schools.
Patrick has repeatedly accused UT-Austin faculty of stoking “societal division,” claiming the professors felt they were above the law.
After the vote Saturday, Patrick harkened back to that moment last February.
“I hope they’re hearing us clearly now,” he said. “They are accountable to the public like all of us.”
Throughout the debate over tenure this session, Republican lawmakers have inaccurately defined tenure as a “lifetime appointment.” All universities have policies in place to remove tenured faculty in certain instances, such as malfeasance, sexual harassment or plagiarism.
The House version of the bill, proposed by state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, defines tenure in state statute as “the entitlement of a faculty member of an institution of higher education to continue in the faculty member’s academic position unless dismissed by the institution for good cause in accordance with the policies and procedures adopted by the institution” — a definition that reflects the common definition of tenure in higher education.
Under Kuempel’s bill, much of how universities currently award tenure would remain intact. University regents would have to clearly lay out how they grant tenure, how they evaluate tenured faculty and the reasons a tenured professor can be terminated, such as professional incompetence, “conduct involving moral turpitude” or unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution.
Faculty from across the state warned lawmakers in committee hearings that universities already have rigorous systems in place to grant and revoke tenure. They also expressed concern that the reasons listed as acceptable to terminate a professor in the House version are vague and could easily be weaponized to fire faculty who say or do something state or university leaders disagree with — the very threat that tenure is designed to protect faculty from.
Dominique Baker, a professor who studies higher education policy at Southern Methodist University, says vague language is especially concerning because some lawmakers have publicly stated their intent to eliminate tenure protections.
“These types of bills are often vague by design,” she said. “When bills are vague by design it can allow that you can sort of selectively choose who’s going to be accountable to the bill and who is not.”
In a statement, the University of Texas at Austin chapter of the American Association of University Professors called the decision “excellent news” but continued to express concerns about what it sees as vague language in the bill.
“We do not believe that such a codification is necessary; furthermore, we are concerned with dangerously broad grounds for termination in the bill as well as the lack of the due process provisions recommended by the AAUP and adopted by more than 1,300 colleges and universities nationally, including many in Texas,” said Brian Evans, vice president of Texas chapter of the AAUP. “Nevertheless, the legislation passed by the House and Senate improves dramatically on the original bill, and we are grateful to the legislators, faculty, staff, students, and professional organizations whose work contributed to the amended bill.”
Faculty are concerned that codifying these policies in state law, will prevent universities from developing tenure policies that work best for an individual institution.
“When the decision-making process around tenure is being shifted from individual institutions and being moved to the Legislature of course the question becomes, ‘What happens in two years?'” Baker said. “This bill feels like the start of something and not the end.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.