Texas Senate approves bill that would end faculty tenure at public universities

A little more than a year after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared war on faculty tenure at the state’s public universities, the Texas Senate approved a bill Thursday that would bar schools from granting the benefit to newly hired professors.

Senate Bill 18 passed 18-11, largely along party lines, with Sens. Brian Birdwell and Kevin Sparks absent. Notably, Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, broke from his party to join Republicans in supporting the measure, arguing that tenure is a historical and discriminatory barrier for professors of color and pointing to racial disparities among faculty awarded tenure at Texas universities.

"I cannot and I will not defend the status quo to maintain the historic discriminatory barrier that tenure is within higher education for minorities," he said.

The legislation heads to the Texas House, where Speaker Dade Phelan has expressed less interest in doing away with tenure.

Patrick’s push to end tenure in Texas started more than a year ago after some University of Texas at Austin professors passed a nonbinding resolution defending their academic freedom to teach about issues like racial justice. The resolution came as Republicans hinted that they wanted to extend restrictions on how race is discussed in K-12 classrooms, which were approved by the Texas Legislature in 2021, to the state’s public universities.

The resolution outraged Patrick, who accused university professors of "indoctrinating" students with leftist ideas and argued that the state must stop awarding tenure because faculty with the benefit don’t face any repercussions for it.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who authored the bill, called tenure "costly and outdated."

"The brand and the reputation of several colleges and universities have been damaged because of the actions of the few vocal fringe tenure faculty," he said.

SB 18 would eliminate tenure only for newly hired professors and would allow a university system governing board to set up its own system of "tiered employment" for faculty, as long as professors receive an annual review. Senators amended the bill to push its effective date from September to January so it wouldn’t negatively affect faculty on track to earn tenure.

But opposing lawmakers expressed concerns that extending that timeline by six months would not help many faculty in the tenure track, who typically spend about half a dozen years working at a university before they start the approval process.

Faculty and higher education experts broadly said Republican senators are mischaracterizing tenured professors as untouchable and ignoring the mechanisms that already exist to hold them accountable.

Tenured faculty already undergo annual performance reviews and other periodic evaluations. They can still be fired if they violate university policies, and tenure can be revoked in certain circumstances, like when someone is accused of plagiarism, sexual harassment or research misconduct.

Faculty and higher education experts say tenure is a vital protection of academic freedom at a university that guards faculty pursuing new ideas or controversial work from being fired or punished. It gives them job security as they conduct research that can sometimes take more than a decade to see results.

Without the ability to award tenure, university leaders have said it would be very difficult to attract top faculty and research stars to the Lone Star State.

"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," said UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell in response to Patrick’s declaration last year. "It would also increase the risk of universities across the state making bad decisions for the wrong reasons."

The bill faces a tough road ahead in the Texas House as the Legislature’s two chambers have sought different higher education priorities this session.

During a Texas Tribune Festival panel last year, Phelan said he opposed eliminating tenure and argued that the attempt to admonish liberal-leaning faculty would backfire by also making it harder to recruit conservative professors. While Patrick listed eliminating tenure among his legislative priorities, Phelan did not. SB 18 does not have a companion bill in the House.

On Thursday, House Higher Education Committee Chair John Kuempel, R-Seguin, said he had not paid attention to SB 18 and would have to look at the proposal before deciding whether to support the tenure ban.

In his TribFest interview, Phelan did signal an openness to reforming tenure to allow for different award and review processes, an alternative option favored by at least one Texas university system.

A document obtained by The Texas Tribune shows that the Texas A&M University System has proposed various ways that lawmakers might codify portions of the system’s current tenure policies and procedures into state law, rather than eliminating tenure altogether.

The document, titled "Options to Improve/Clarify State Laws Regarding Tenure," points out that there is no definition of tenure in state law, which requires universities to create policies only for post-tenure review but not for granting the benefit.

State law currently states that tenure can be revoked during post-tenure review for "incompetency, neglect of duty or other good cause," but the system suggests that the state could expand and specify that list of reasons and give universities the ability to revoke tenure at any time, not just when a professor is under tenure review.

The university system also suggests that lawmakers require short-term development plans for faculty who receive an unsatisfactory rating in their performance evaluations, and to include specific benchmarks that a professor must meet before their performance is considered satisfactory.

Another House higher education committee member, Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin, confirmed that he’s discussed Texas A&M’s policies with Democrats and Republicans in the House.

"It’s more likely that the Legislature codifies university tenure policies into state law, rather than allowing each university system to develop their own policies as currently allowed," Bucy said.

Michael Harris, a higher education policy expert at Southern Methodist University, said many of the policies suggested by Texas A&M are standard practice within higher education already, though he noted it is unusual to codify them in state law.

Bucy said he would prefer to keep these decisions at the university level.

"To make any changes, you’ve got to come back here, and I just don’t think that’s where higher ed should be functioning," he said. "They should be able to do what’s best for them.

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