What exactly is tenure?
Although it’s been around since 1940, misconceptions abound, namely that tenure means a faculty member ‘never can be fired’—which is simply not true. This definition of tenure is from the American Federation of Teachers page on higher education:
New faculty members typically undergo a multiyear probationary period during which their teaching and research are evaluated by their colleagues. Those who meet all these requirements successfully may be awarded tenure. Tenure simply means that a college or university can not fire a tenured professor unless it presents compelling evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally, or that the institution is in grave financial distress. Tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee—it is a guarantee of due process that enables tenured professors to do their work without being subject to removal because of shifts in the political winds, institutional favoritism, or for crossing the “wrong” student, trustee, colleague or supervisor.
In my case, I underwent three separate, comprehensive reviews (after three, five, and seven years on the job) before earning tenure. Even now, I could lose my job if I slacked off or did something else that violated basic standards of behavior, or if my school decided it no longer needed or could no longer afford my department. I continue to have an annual meeting with my dean, who is my supervisor, to whom I submit a report covering what I’ve done in the past year, as well as what I plan to do next year and beyond in terms of teaching and research/writing.
Tenure doesn’t give me the freedom to not do my job. It ensures that I can choose what to write, publish, and teach about based on my professional judgment and training—and guarantees that those choices won’t ever cause me to lose my position. That’s academic freedom.
I’m proud that what I write about politics is evidence-based. My books, including the two most recent ones—in which I strongly criticize right-wing media figures and politicians—have earned strong, unsolicited reviews published by fellow scholars. I also know that having tenure made me feel protected from the possibility that I could face retaliation from people—either in politics or, more likely, within my own department or institution—who didn’t like what I was saying and possessed the power to get rid of me.
But don’t just take my word for it. Irene Mulvey, the national president of the American Association of University Professors, provided numerous examples of topics that might not be researched by professors concerned about whether doing so would cost them their jobs. Climate change is certainly one that might be problematic in conservative, oil-producing states, or even at any college if members of the board of trustees—which has tremendous influence in most institutions—happen to depend on fossil fuels for their wealth. Or, to go in another direction, Mulvey cited research into or criticism of athletic department budgets that might not happen without the protections tenure provides.
Jim Klein, a history professor at Del Mar College (a two-year institution), pointed out that tenured faculty serve as watchdogs when it comes to problematic behavior. Without tenure, that’s a much harder thing to ask professors to do. “We’re really under a pretty strong obligation to report that, because there are a lot of people here … who don’t have that same protection.” I would add that tenured faculty are more likely to feel secure enough to support student activism, which over the years has proven vital to the success of social justice causes—most prominently the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Tenure ensures academic freedom
Academic freedom helps ensure courageous, high-quality teaching and research—which redounds to the benefit of students most directly, but also our democratic society, which thrives when people pursue the truth, wherever it leads. Given the, er, strained relationship the Republican Party and its media allies have with the truth (the Big Lie being but the biggest one on a menu longer than any of my books), it’s no wonder so many of them express hostility to tenure.
Some of you might be wondering about teacher tenure in K-12 schools, and how it connects with the fight over academic freedom. We’ve certainly seen laws passed recently that limit what teachers can say or teach when it comes to gender/LGBT identity (Florida’s despicable “Don’t Say Gay” law being Exhibit A) or ban the teaching of critical race theory (despite the fact that it’s not taught in K-12 schools to begin). These kinds of laws don’t specifically target tenure in K-12 schools, at least not directly. Still, look at what happened to an untenured substitute teacher in Ohio, who got fired for answering students’ questions about LGBT Pride bracelets and handing a few out to those who requested them.
Over the years, a number of states have moved to limit the protections tenure provides K-12 teachers. Those measures were promoted as a way to make it easier to fire lower-performing teachers, and that’s a whole other debate from the one here about academic freedom. Being tenured would not protect a teacher from punishment for violating one of the aforementioned laws on what they can teach; they’d still be breaking a law. So even though those laws aren’t directly affecting teacher tenure, they certainly are restricting academic freedom. Furthermore, such laws provide another opportunity for those (hopefully few) administrators looking to screw over someone for a reason other than their actual performance as an educator.
Regarding higher education, Trumpers clearly see attacking tenure there as an issue that plays well for them in many states. As on so many other issues, it’s in Texas where we see the right wing acting in the most extreme fashion. The leading figure has been Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. On Feb. 18, talking about Texas’s public universities, he stated: “What we will propose to do is end tenure, all tenure for all new hires.” Patrick also proposed that those who currently hold tenure would be subject to formal reviews each year that could, in theory, lead to their firing. Currently, those reviews happen every six years.
Patrick made clear that the central issue for him was—is anyone really shocked by this?—critical race theory, aka CRT. Last June, Texas banned the teaching of that topic in K-12 schools, and also specifically made verboten the use in the classroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project. (No serious work of history is above criticism, including that one, but few, if any, have been singled out in such a ridiculous and overtly ideological fashion—and, by the way, check out what congressional Republicans tried to pull last year on this front). When the University of Texas at Austin’s Faculty Council issued a statement criticizing the law, it clearly got under Patrick’s skin.
In his Feb. 18 remarks, the lieutenant governor explained (and I’ll bet a whole herd of cattle he really enjoyed saying this): “The law will change to say teaching critical race theory is prima facie evidence of good cause for tenure revocation.” Mention CRT, and you’ll be out on your chaps by the end of the academic year—tenured or not. Referencing the UT-Austin Faculty Council, Patrick added:
We are not going to allow a handful of professors who do not represent the entire group to teach and indoctrinate students with critical race theory—that we are inherently racist as a nation. The parents are the ones who pay tuition, and of course, they’re going to have a say in what the curriculum is.
On Twitter, Patrick loosened up a bit more:
At this point, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is taking a wait-and-see approach, but refuses to rule out his support for such measures. “That’s something that will have to be looked at,” he said.
Andrea Gore is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and chair of the Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility at UT. She condemned Patrick’s idea as “absolutely terrible.” Gore continued:
Doing away with that kind of freedom is imposing other authoritarian rules on a system that thrives under freedom—where we have the opportunity to educate our students about different points of view and to be able to do the research in areas that can change the world and make it a better place.
Jay Hartzell, UT-Austin’s president, presented the stark consequences for the state of such a proposal becoming law: “Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members; it would also hurt Texas students, who would not be able to stay in state knowing that they will be learning from the very best in the country.” The aforementioned Professor Mulvey put out a statement on Patrick’s abominable plan as well.
Additionally, a drop in the quality of education would have a negative effect on the economy. Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project, noted that companies looking for a highly educated workforce would be less likely to come to “a Texas that doesn’t have tenure.” Why take such a risk? According to Blank, “Republicans have found in the issue broadly described as critical race theory, a way to mobilize culture war elements in the public schools that really activates some Republican voters.” To quote the distinguished philosopher Gomer Pyle: “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” His collected works may be on this semester’s final exam.
Not just Texas
A new law just adopted in Florida limits tenure by creating an additional review every five years of tenured faculty by the trustees of the university. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis explicitly stated that its purpose is to combat what he called “intellectual orthodoxy.” In other words, he wants to change what University of Florida faculty think, write, and teach, and is going to change the tenure process to get what he wants. So much for limited government conservatism, right? Tim Boaz, president of the University of South Florida’s faculty senate, predicted that these laws will make it harder to recruit top faculty to Florida’s public colleges. “I think it would be unfortunate if we had tenure in name only,” he stated. “Talented faculty across the nation will see this and say that’s not tenure.”
The bill also mandates that every course syllabus be posted online because, according to the state’s House Speaker, there’s a concern that students think they are signing up for a course on “western democracy” and “what it means to be an actual American” but end up learning about “socialism and communism” because of, I guess, a bait and switch? Do these guys realize how ridiculous they sound? Either way, this is dangerous stuff.
Earlier this year, South Carolina considered its own bill that would eliminate tenure in its public universities and replace it with a system that would prevent institutions from offering a faculty member a contract longer than five years. The bill was withdrawn as part of a larger agreement that includes the possible commissioning of a study of how tenure works in the state’s higher education system.
The South Carolina bill will be returning to the legislative floor in next year’s session, according to its lead sponsor, so this fight is far from over. Those very same state legislators also went on record denouncing the teaching of critical race theory, which they falsely claimed “proclaims all white people are oppressors and all black people are inherently oppressed.” This is what a party says when it has no economic policy to run on. Getting rid of Obamacare and cutting the taxes of fat cats doesn’t sell nearly as well with middle- and working-class white voters as does hair-on-fire fear-mongering about what nefarious plans Black people and their liberal allies will supposedly enact in the name of racial justice.
A similar bill aimed at ending college faculty tenure came to the floor of the Iowa State House last year, but failed. Nevertheless, Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley (grandson of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley) isn’t ready to give up: “There still is interest within the Legislature to do something within tenure, it just may be a different approach.”
Along similar lines, the Louisiana state legislature in late May passed a resolution (which did not require the signature of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat) creating a “Task Force on Tenure in Postsecondary Education.” While it may, to the uninitiated, sound innocuous on its face, the accompanying resolution’s language gives the game away: “Postsecondary education students should be confident that they are being exposed to the spectrum of viewpoints, including those that are dissenting…and that faculty members are not using their courses for the purposes of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.” Once again, this is all about state government trying to control what faculty say and how they teach in their own classrooms.
Louisiana State University professor of communication Robert Mann made clear the agenda behind the resolution, and called out the presidents of LSU and the University of Louisiana System for not standing up to oppose it.
Although I’ve focused here on the relationship between tenure and academic freedom, I want to highlight a related fact about tenure and higher education. Tenure, or even the opportunity to earn it, is something that fewer and fewer college faculty have, thanks to a long-standing trend in higher education. Furthermore, more teaching is being done by adjunct/part-time faculty who are often employed one semester and one course at a time.
Many of them have to teach at multiple institutions to make ends meet—something a good number still can’t do, as evidenced by the 25% of adjunct instructors who receive some form of public assistance. There’s even been a growing trend of prestigious universities “hiring” people to teach courses for, wait for it, ZERO pay. The experience and a line on a resume is supposed to be compensation enough, I guess.
Back to the war on tenure: It is part and parcel of the Republican attack on American education. In 2021 and 2022 alone, 15 new laws went into effect in 13 states that seek to “gag” teachers in K-12 or college classrooms. There are approximately another 100 that have been introduced and could still become law, with 57 of them authorizing specific punishments for those who run afoul of a provision.
In the end, Republicans want to eliminate tenure because they want the government to control what college faculty teach—at least in the states where conservatives run the government, that is. It sounds a hell of a lot like what China is doing right now in its universities. Such a development would destroy the pursuit of knowledge that stands at the heart of the mission of higher education, and education more broadly.
But hey, we are talking about a
political party cult whose leader thinks there’s no difference between what one can prove with evidence and what “people are saying.” For them, wide-scale ignorance is bliss.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)