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.