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Academic freedom and the fight over tenure at Texas universities

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has proposed to end professor tenure for all public universities in Texas, sparking a wider conversation over academic freedom at institutions of higher learning and the state going too far in its regulation of curriculum.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The latest fight over education in Texas centers around higher education and ending tenure at public colleges and universities in the state to combat the teaching of critical race theory. After Republicans passed laws to limit teachers' capacity to discuss controversial topics in the classroom, professors are bracing themselves for a battle over what they call their academic freedom.

Academic freedom is the idea that professors, not school administrators or the government, have the authority to control what topics are discussed in the classroom. The goal is to expose students to concepts that they may otherwise have never been introduced to, including ones that are controversial or seen by some as dangerous.

On Feb. 14, the faculty council at the University of Texas at Austin voted to affirm its commitment to academic freedom in a resolution introduced by Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“State legislative proposals seeking to limit teaching and discussions of racism and related issues have been proposed and enacted in several states, including Texas,” the resolution read. “This resolution affirms the fundamental rights of faculty to academic freedom in its broadest sense, inclusive of research and teaching of race and gender theory.”

The resolution was spurred by actions taken by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature last year, including the passage of two bills banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools and calling on school districts to remove books with “pornographic material." Critical race theory is a framework or lens often used in college classrooms to examine how inequalities persist through laws and institutions.

Educators, activists and Democratic lawmakers criticized state leaders, including Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, both Republicans, for pushing a false narrative that critical race theory was being taught in Texas K-12 schools and for targeting books focused on the LGBT experience as pornographic.

After University of Texas faculty members voted 41-5 to approve the resolution, Patrick, a staunch Christian conservative who made banning critical race theory in the classroom a priority for the Texas Senate, set his sights on higher education. 

In a Feb. 15 tweet, he said he “will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory.”

“We banned it in publicly funded K-12 schools and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed,” Patrick wrote.

He echoed that sentiment at a Feb. 18 press conference in which he proposed to end tenure for all new hires, make teaching critical race theory cause to revoke the tenure of current professors and require annual performance reviews of all professors.

“Apparently, this small group of professors… do not understand that we in the legislature represent the people of Texas, we are the ones that distribute taxpayer dollars, we are the ones who pay their salaries… of course, we are going to have a say in what the curriculum is,” he said, adding that the professors who voted in favor of the resolution were trying to not be held accountable for what they teach and say in the classroom.

The lieutenant governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, described tenure as employment protection that allows professors to explore and teach about a wide range of ideas without fear of being fired for doing so.

“If you have that greater degree of protection then you can feel more assured that your work is protected from negative repercussions and employment decisions,” Huddleston said in an interview.

While tenure gives educators a higher level of protection in both teaching and research, a tenured professor can be removed if there is justifiable cause, such as displaying incompetence in their teaching duties. 

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Following Patrick’s response to the University of Texas faculty resolution, other universities in the state began taking similar actions, including Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University and the University of Houston.

Jay Hartzell, president of the University of Texas, said in a statement to faculty members that tenure is an essential tool to attract the best educators.

“Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members, but 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,” Hartzell said.

The American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, has been a fierce advocate for academic freedom and tenure since its founding in 1915. Jeff Blodgett is the president of its Texas branch and is also a professor of business at the University of Houston – Victoria. He said in an interview that both Patrick's proposal and others aimed at regulating classroom discussion are cause for concern.

“The issue is not so much critical race theory,” said Blodgett. “The real issue is the ability for faculty members to teach what they deem to be proper.”

Blodgett sees professors' ability to control classroom content as a core ingredient in what makes higher education in the United States sought after around the world. 

“They may disagree with critical race theory and that is fine, but to say that someone should be fired for teaching it, that crosses the line,” he said.

Organizers of the South by Southwest festival's EDU conference in Austin invited Gore, AAUP President Irene Mulvey, DePaul University associate professor of political science Valerie Johnson and Prairie View A&M University assistant professor of justice studies David Rembert to talk Wednesday about academic freedom and what they are doing to combat proposals like the one introduced by Patrick. 

“It would be funny to point out that these bills target critical thinking skills, at the same time they illustrate the need for critical thinking skills,” Mulvey said. “Students deserve a full, fair and honest education.”

The panelists all spoke to their personal experience fighting against attacks on tenure in the name of preserving academic freedom. All four at various points called on university faculty members to get engaged and pass resolutions to tell both lawmakers, administrators and the public at large that "gauging" teachers harms the quality of education in America. Some had an even more dire message.

Johnson led the charge at DePaul University to pass the country's first resolution affirming academic freedom, and she said that the problem facing schools today is authoritarianism seeking to silence minority voices on campus. 

The panel did not discuss what happens if state legislatures go through with their proposal to end tenure.

The AAUP has not ruled out bringing legal challenges to such legislation, according to Risa Lieberwitz, the group's general counsel.

Lieberwitz said such proposed laws pose a threat to constitutionally protected speech. 

“The First Amendment issues, in terms of overbreadth, vagueness of the law, making certain topics off-limits, as a matter of freedom of speech and academic freedom are severe legal problems,” she said.

Without Abbott calling a special legislative session, the earliest Patrick would be able to formally introduce a bill to end professor tenure in Texas is 2023, when lawmakers reconvene. However, the fight over what content should be allowed in classrooms is unlikely to subside during the 2022 election season. 

Advocates for academic freedom believe their only way forward is to convince both lawmakers and the public that protecting tenure and the right to discuss controversial topics is what makes American universities great.

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