Is the Tenure System in American Universities Coming to an End?”
According to the Texas Tribune, the Texas State Senate recently passed a new bill that prohibits granting tenure to new faculty members in state universities. Simultaneously, the state of North Carolina is also considering targeting the tenure system.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the proponent of the bill, expressed his views after the Senate’s approval of the tenure legislation, stating, “Some tenured faculty at Texas universities believe they are not accountable to the legislature or their respective boards. These professors claim ‘academic freedom’ and hide behind their tenure to advance their divisive social agenda.”
However, scholars argue that the tenure system is intended to protect teachers and academic freedom from the influence of similar political moves initiated by Patrick. They believe that professors need a safety net to engage in potentially unpopular academic research without political interference.
Jay Hartzell, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, stated that tenure is the reason high-quality professors choose to stay in academia, providing them with a sense of security and long-term vision to tackle challenges.
Elimination of Tenure for Professors Sparks Controversy
Texas Tribune reports that over a year ago, several professors at the University of Texas at Austin passed a non-binding resolution defending their academic freedom to teach on issues of racial justice and equality.
This move has angered Patrick, who accuses university professors of “indoctrinating” students with left-wing ideologies and argues that the state must end the practice of granting tenure, claiming that tenured faculty would not be affected by the change in job security.
In the United States, tenure is an indefinite appointment for distinguished university professors, providing them with lifelong job security that can only be terminated under exceptional circumstances.
Over a year ago, Patrick declared war on tenure for faculty at public universities in the state. Now, the Texas State Senate has approved the bill. The legislation only revokes tenure for newly hired professors, allowing university systems’ boards of regents to establish their own “tiered employment” systems for faculty, subject to annual reviews.
This bill has faced significant opposition from educators and higher education experts. Teachers and professors widely argue that even with tenure, faculty members can still be dismissed if they violate university policies. Moreover, in certain cases such as allegations of plagiarism, sexual harassment, or academic misconduct, tenure can be revoked. Furthermore, tenure serves as a crucial safeguard for academic freedom, protecting teachers engaged in pursuing new ideas or controversial work from being fired or punished, particularly when their research may take a decade or longer to yield results.
University leaders express concerns that without the guarantee of tenure, it will be challenging to attract top-notch teachers and research-oriented talent.
“Eliminating tenure would not only weaken Texas’ ability to recruit and retain exceptional faculty, but also harm Texas students who would leave the state to study with the nation’s best educators,” responded Jay Hartzell to Patrick’s remarks. “It would also increase the risk of universities across the state making wrong decisions for the wrong reasons.”
The bill has now been forwarded to the Texas House of Representatives, where Speaker Dade Phelan has shown little interest in pursuing the abolition of tenure.
U.S. States Follow Suit: Controversial Move to Abolish Tenure Gains Traction
While North Carolina legislators have been advocating for the elimination of tenure, similar discussions are taking place across the United States.
Two years ago, North Carolina made national headlines with a scandal surrounding faculty appointments. The Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill refused to vote on granting tenure to Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, despite support from academic leaders. This unprecedented move sparked controversy.
Critics opposed Hannah-Jones’ proposed “1619 Project,” which delves into how slavery shaped American culture.
Under mounting pressure from nationwide voices, the Board of Trustees ultimately yielded and offered Hannah-Jones tenure. However, she chose to accept a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Now, some North Carolina legislators seek to completely abolish tenure.
According to a recent state-level bill proposed in North Carolina, teachers employed at public colleges after July 2024 would no longer be eligible for tenure. The proposed legislation would categorize instructors at community colleges and four-year universities as contract employees with terms ranging from one to four years.
The new bill aims to provide some protections for contract employees. For instance, they cannot be dismissed unless they violate their contracts due to incompetence, neglect of duties, serious misconduct, or other specified reasons. They may also face termination if the university declares a financial emergency.
In addition to outright abolishment, certain regions are seeking to weaken the protections tenure affords faculty members. Florida Governor DeSantis has spearheaded a series of higher education reforms in the state. Last year, he signed a bill requiring public university leaders to conduct tenure reviews every five years. In March of this year, an even more far-reaching bill was proposed, granting university trustees the authority to request tenure reviews “at any time.”
Supported strongly by DeSantis, House Bill 999 in the Florida House of Representatives empowers school presidents and trustees to make hiring and retention decisions without interference from unions or teacher committees. The legislation also prohibits universities from using diversity, equity, and inclusion statements or engaging in “critiques of critical race theory” during the hiring process.
Following the proposal of these bills, numerous academic and higher education organizations have voiced their opposition. The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) stated that if HB 999 passes, it would undermine academic freedom in the state’s public colleges and universities, leading to dire consequences for teaching, research, and financial stability.
A survey revealed that the proportion of tenured faculty members at U.S. public research universities has declined by approximately 8 percentage points over the past 20 years, while the proportion of non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty has increased by nearly 10 percentage points.
A 2022 study by the American Association of University Professors found that over the past five years, more than 60% of public higher education institutions have replaced some tenured positions with non-tenure-track or adjunct appointments.
"These Foolish Efforts Lead to Talent Drain"
In recent years, conservative-leaning states such as Texas, North Carolina, and Florida have been at the forefront of restricting or eliminating tenure for professors, a move that has raised concerns about a “talent drain” in academia. These states, commonly referred to as “red states,” are known for their Republican Party dominance, while “blue states” are associated with Democratic Party support. The impact of these efforts and their potential consequences are explored in a recent op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times.
The op-ed highlights the case of Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, who targeted the state’s university system to bolster his reputation as a cultural warrior before his presidential campaign in 2015. Walker’s administration reduced the budget for the state’s public universities and his appointed board abolished tenure protections for faculty. The result was a decline in the university’s ranking among recipients of federal research funding, dropping from 10th place in 2010 to 16th place in 2021. Overall research expenditures also suffered, falling from a national ranking of 3rd in 2010 to 8th in 2021.
While Walker’s presidential ambitions were short-lived, his approach of appealing to a fervent far-right electoral base by targeting higher education institutions and their faculty has been adopted by Republican politicians in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
In contrast, “blue states” in the United States generally do not impose similar ideological scrutiny on their teachers.
The op-ed argues that both enacted and proposed measures in conservative states are not aimed at addressing real issues constructively. Instead, they serve to intimidate teachers. Many of these laws are vaguely worded, leaving university professors uncertain about the boundaries they must navigate.
Alfred Soto, a faculty member at Florida International University, expressed concerns following the introduction of HB 999, stating, “Faculty and administrators are cautious about expressing opinions because they fear being sued for crossing some invisible line.”