The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and other Texas universities are under attack. 

Dan Patrick, current Lieutenant Governor of Texas, (a position, thanks to the Texas Constitution that is potentially more powerful than that of Governor) advocates abolition of academic tenure at all of Texas’s public universities. 

Patrick is running in the Republican primary, March 1st. He faces three opponents, some more right wing than he—hence, a possible run-off. In an effort to out-right-wing them, he calls for abolishing academic tenure at UTRGV and all other Texas public universities. Only the private universities will prosper, welcoming professors fleeing public universities attacked by Patrick.

What is academic tenure and why is it important? It is a [relatively] “permanent and guaranteed contract in academia, “ i.e., colleges and universities (Sue Ishaq, “What is Academic Tenure?” Ishaq Lab, 26 Mar 21). The number of those with tenure is diminishing. Still, for centuries, tenure has been highly valued, certainly in U.S. academia, and in many universities around the world.

The protection of tenure has existed since at least 1179 CE, with the blessings of Pope Alexander III and other religious and civil authorities. The tradition was followed through medieval times; then, it was strengthened with formal policies and legislation in the 1900s in the U.S. (“Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” 1940, American Association of University Professors, Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure). It survived the McCarthy period and attacks by southern segregationist legislators.

The “impetus behind tenure is to support academic freedom,” that is, to protect researchers and teachers from being fired for political or social reasons. Those supposed reasons may be in retaliation for allegedly “controversial” topics of study, brought by random groups  (Ishaq). Attacks are sometimes prompted by studies of little known or unpopular subjects, often by allegedly religious groups. Those groups (and Patrick) may or may not realize that, once granted, tenure can only be terminated for financial or legal malfeasance; it does not protect a professor or researcher from dismissal for crimes, civil or criminal, or for abuse of authority, such as selling grades. 

Before tenure is ever granted, a professor (with a Ph.D. in his/her academic field) is put on “tenure track,” subject to a review committee (three to six of his/her colleagues). Often, joining the committee may be another member from a department “outside” that of the person being reviewed. Reviews are annual; the process may take up to seven years, and is based on merit in teaching, research and publishing. Results are not automatic. The old cry used to be “publish or perish.” As funds for education diminished, many professors were faced with “publish AND perish.”

After recommendation for tenure by a Department Committee, the tenure application must be approved by the Department Chair, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, the University President, and the Board of Regents before tenure is formally granted. As noted, the application for tenure is reviewed on many levels.

Review is annual, with another review, for tenured faculty, required each six years. Tenure is especially protective (and the process is especially difficult) for professors at beginning and intermediate levels. If Patrick gets his way, and tenure is abolished, it becomes a matter of “be careful what you wish for;” because, then, the stage is then set for unionization, with less wiggle room for administrators. 

Data often differ, but the percent of professors with tenure protection ranges between 25% and 40% in the US. Hence, the bulk of professors are adjunct, temporary, or on tenure track. Many of these  are often fine researchers and teachers. But, especially in the arts and social sciences, they may not be as free to report their research or express their thoughts as those protected by tenure. 

In 2003, to note only one example, professor Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, discovered high levels of lead in waters in Flint, Michigan. His findings were scientifically confirmed, but there was angry push-back from governmental and business sectors. He proclaimed: “I did not go into academia to deny the benefits of science to children.” Without tenure, his job—and the truth—would have been in jeopardy (American Association of University Professors Report, September, 2021). 

In addition, “without tenure, quality of universities would diminish,” as professors would exit the state (or never come in the first place), resulting in the loss of grants from government or businesses, harming the people of that state (David R. Loope, “Response to South Carolina Bill to Abolish Tenure,” ERIC, May 1995). In addition to South Carolina’s attempts and Dan Patrick’s threats, opposition to tenure exists elsewhere, even in quasi-academic sources.

In the Harvard Business Review (not a scholarly source), James C. Wetherbe, of Texas Tech, writes, “It’s Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure.” (13 Mar 13). His main reason seems to be “to save money.” One can find those views around; some workers in insecure jobs may resent the assumption that a few academics might have a “life-time guarantee” of a job. (Ironically, often, new hires earn higher salaries than the older professors, “safe” with their tenure.)

Some of those same workers might join those who disparage academia or teaching in general—both cause and effect of the “war on education.” They may believe they have a right to dictate what is taught and who teaches. Most working parents, however—certainly the parents of my students in the Rio Grande Valley at UTRGV—value education. They are proud of their children’s’ achievements. They respect the history and principles of the professors, whether at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley or elsewhere.

Be glad of them for their wisdom and their support. Be suspicious of Patrick or anyone calling for abolition of tenure—an historic, useful tradition. It is a tradition necessary to advance scientific research, creative teaching, and to protect freedom of thought and expression.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Dr. Gary Joe Mounce, professor emeritus (political science) at UT-Rio Grande Valley. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Mounce can be reached by email via: [email protected]

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