What 3 elements are driving the attacks on tenure, free speech in higher education?

The severity of sanctions is increasing, so what does that mean for the best and brightest faculty?

At least 19 states have legislative restrictions on teaching, learning and reading in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. The banning of books is just one example of gag orders that affect more than 120 million Americans.

In recent months, conservative politicians and governors have increasingly targeted state universities, exerting control over the hiring of administrators and what faculty can teach to students, including critical race theory. In the ultimate show of power, they are trying, and even succeeding, to eliminate tenure.

In Texas, state leaders will aim later this year to ban tenure as a way to prevent some curricula, namely CRT, from being taught. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been out front with his attacks on protected faculty, saying, “Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation. Universities are being taken over by tenured, leftist professors, and it is high time that more oversight is provided.”

In Mississippi, its Board of Trustees (who are approved by the governor) recently amended the tenure policy to state that only individual university presidents would have the power to approve tenure and must ensure their “effectiveness in communications” and their “collegiality.” That raised concerns with PEN America, which drafted a letter to the state commissioner of higher education Alfred Rankins asking that it remove those requirements, saying it also misconstrued guidelines from the American Association of University Professors on free speech.

“There are quiet provisions slipped into the policies saying that, for college presidents, when they decide to make tenure decisions, now we’re going to base them in part on whether the faculty speak in a way that president approves of to the media,” says Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at nonprofit advocacy group PEN America. “These are things that really run to the core of academic freedom, which is supposed to empower faculty to do things that make them unpopular if they serve research and scholarship and teaching purposes.”

More from UB: Strike up the bans: Nearly 50 gag orders target free speech in higher ed 

Similar policies have taken root in many southern states, including Georgia, where the Board of Regents for the university system all but eliminated due process for tenured faculty who come under investigation; and in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that, among other things, puts tenured professors in the crosshairs of potential “standards of accountability.” A release from the Department of Education states, “Previously, tenured faculty had to be retained despite repeated instances of political motivations, ineffective teaching practices and overall bad behavior in the classroom.” Not anymore.

Devaluing and reconstructing higher education

If there’s an impression that higher ed is facing more attacks than ever in the political landscape, that might be true. Young points out that faculty were also fired from positions after World War I, which led to many existing tenure policies, and also after the Cold War, when professors were let go because of their commentary on the conflict. But the level and volume of directives and legislation are much more significant now.

“If you look at polling over the last 10 years, there’s been a really strong decline among conservatives in their view of the value of higher education,” Young says. “There’s been this idea—something which is true in many ways—that professors are overwhelmingly liberal. And yet higher education as a whole has not ever been viewed as negatively by conservatives as it is today.

“A 2019 poll from a Pew indicated that a majority of conservatives view higher education as a negative for society,” he adds. “We’re not just talking about the English program or the critical race theory studies program. We’re talking about business schools and nursing programs. That shift among conservatives has opened the door to some much more significant attacks on academic freedom, on tenure, things that were until fairly recently sacred across the political spectrum.”

So what is driving the latest burst of legislative actions and what is the end game for politicians and state leaders in these states?

“One is to win the next election. These ideas will certainly rally the base,” Young says. “Particularly in the aftermath of the Virginia governor’s election, there’s a sense that some of these attacks are broadly popular, even with swing voters, which I think is less true. There is a desire to undermine the power of universities, particularly elite universities, and their cultural power. There’s a sense that they represent a power base for the left and they should be destroyed or damaged. And there are people who just want to ban speech that they find uncomfortable. But there’s a lot of bandwagoning going on here.”

One notable difference that separates the K-12 situation from higher ed is staffing. School districts are losing teachers in droves and struggling to replace them, putting states with bans in a potentially dangerous position if more leave. At colleges, there aren’t enough positions for the number of scholars, so even if there were attrition, it would not be as significant. However, that doesn’t mean some might not just walk away, and Young warns it might be “some of the best and brightest. There are people who are not going to put up with this.”

Although there might be little that those opposed to tenure elimination might do to sway legislators in states such as Florida, Young says more must be done to both raise public discussion and show just how well-vetted professors are who attain tenure.

“There’s no one pushing back outside of the university itself, saying tenure is the bedrock of intellectual investigation and academic freedom,” Young says. “Even academics and university constituents don’t make that argument forcefully enough. What we need is to change the discourse around this issue, so that it is not a perpetual retreat. It feels like a perpetual rearguard action.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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