Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Dan Patrick’s Ban on Tenure Could Devastate Texas’ University System

The lieutenant governor’s proposal would not only do away with academic freedom; it would make attracting the best faculty near impossible.

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On Friday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced he would seek to abolish tenure for professors at Texas’ public universities, the latest in an ongoing GOP attack on public education. 

“What we will propose to do is end tenure, all tenure for all new hires,” said Patrick, whose proposal would eliminate tenure for new hires and require those who have it to undergo a review every year rather than every six. “The law will change to say teaching critical race theory is prima facie evidence of good cause for tenure revocation.”

Speaking at the Capitol, Patrick was responding to a recent non-binding resolution from the faculty council at The University of Texas at Austin striking back at the state’s law banning the teaching of “critical race theory,” which Governor Greg Abbott signed in June.

“The Faculty Council resolutely rejects any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate the content of university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice, and will stand firm against any and all encroachment on faculty authority including by the legislature or the Board of Regents,” noted the statement, which the faculty approved by a vote of 41 to 5 with three abstentions at a meeting on February 14. 

“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,” Patrick said. “The parents are the ones who pay tuition, and of course, they’re going to have a say in what the curriculum is.” 

Nearly two years into a global pandemic, teachers are caught in the middle of fights over masking, school closures, remote learning, and other issues. Patrick’s latest threat to university tenure is another dose of salt in the wound. Educators at all levels now face the threat of termination and public shaming for talking frankly to their students about racism. Patrick’s attacks on tenure are a thinly veiled attack on academic freedom.

Patrick’s proposal comes on the heels of Abbott’s recent Parental Bill of Rights, which has been billed as giving parents greater influence over their children’s education in public schools but in reality is a continuation of the GOP’s onslaught on public education. It would amend the state constitution to fire teachers found teaching “pornography”—including material that deals with race, gender, or sexual orientation that Republicans find objectionable—and ban them from the profession. 

The shifting politics within the GOP are on full display here. “Chamber of Commerce” Republicanism, which used to govern the state, is hardly visible in the rear-view mirror. Instead, the party has now fully embraced a right-wing populist, culture warrior mentality. 

Additionally, the lieutenant governor is surely taking note of Republican Glenn Younkin’s bellwether victory in the Virginia governor’s race, in which his campaign focused on education. Patrick sees the potential to amplify turnout in GOP primary races, using tried and true conservative white grievance politics around education.

Understandably, professors are unhappy with their newfound position as a political football. 

Andrea Gore, professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and chairwoman of the Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility at The University of Texas, which drafted the resolution, called Patrick’s proposal “absolutely terrible.” 

“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,” Gore said.

Members of the university community are concerned ending tenure would permanently damage the Texas public university system by making it difficult to attract talent. Tenure provides academics with the freedom to pursue research and ideas that may be unpopular. Telling potential candidates their job is under review each year—and in jeopardy if they dare address racism in American history—would make it tough to do that. 

“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,” University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell said in a statement on Monday, 

Removing tenure would ultimately affect the Texas economy. At an event in Beaumont last November, Abbott said that “more and more great companies are moving to Texas every day because of our welcoming business climate and our young, growing, skilled, and diverse workforce.”

“That’s not going to happen in a Texas that doesn’t have tenure,” said Joshua Blank, Research Director of the Texas Politics Project, noting that the state’s robust higher education system produces the growing workforce Abbott mentioned.

Among the problems with the state GOP’s obsession with critical race theory is that few of its critics seem to understand what it is. Patrick described it as “a theory that says we’re going to judge you when you walk into the classroom by the color of your skin—that if you’re white, you were born a racist … and if you are a person of color, you’re a victim.”

This characterization is “not accurate at all,” said Eric McDaniel, co-director of the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab at the University of Texas. 

“Critical race theory is a way to understand the ways in which racism can remain around, even as we’re trying to eradicate it,” he said. “It’s very much a look at systematic racism or institutionalized racism.”

McDaniel explained that critical race theory—an interdisciplinary, academic movement that posits race is a social construct embedded in social structures rather than simply personal bias—isn’t often taught to undergraduates. To his knowledge, it’s taught to third-year law students and upper-level graduate students.

Nevertheless, the lieutenant governor may see tenure as another effective motivator to turnout GOP primary voters.

“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 activate some Republican voters,” Blank said. 

Citing polling by his organization, Blank noted that a plurality of Republicans opposes limiting the teaching of racism in the history of the U.S. by Texas public school teachers by a margin of 47 percent, as opposed to 42 percent in favor. However, Blank noted that Patrick sees an opportunity to undermine Democrats in an area where they have traditionally outperformed Republicans. 

By shifting the narrative around public education away from the traditional issues of funding and toward culture war issues like the history of racism, transgender athletes, and offensive library books, Republicans are putting Democrats on the defensive. 

“It forces Democrats into the difficult position of arguing that no, in fact, parents do have enough say over the children’s education,” Blank said.