Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced last month a plan to phase out all tenure in Texas’ public colleges and universities, and to revoke tenure for those who teach critical race theory. These changes would have dramatic effects on public education in Texas and, ultimately, across the United States, undermining academic freedom and compromising a higher education system that is the envy of the world.
If you were to make a list of the United States’ most significant contributions to the world, our public university systems would have to be somewhere near the top.
If you were to make a list of the United States’ most significant contributions to the world, our public university systems would have to be somewhere near the top. According to U.S. News’ rankings, of the top 20 universities around the world, 15 are American, and five of those are public. Thanks to these and other universities, the U.S. dominates Nobel Prizes and other scholarly achievements, while it educates tens of millions of students annually. Typically, about a million students per year come from other countries to attend American colleges and universities. Those on student visas largely return to their home countries, spreading the knowledge and values they learn here.
Rather remarkably, this is not widely celebrated. Worse, America’s public universities are currently being attacked from multiple sources, threatening both our educational integrity and global reputation, to say nothing of the way such attacks could impact student opportunities.
The first of these attacks stems from a rather long-term historical force — declining state budgets. States are simply subsidizing public education far less than they used to do. Outside just a handful of states, per-student funding from state governments dropped substantially over the past few decades. Students and their families increasingly have to make up that difference.
But there’s a more immediate threat going on, of which Patrick is only the latest instigator. Patrick is hardly the first state leader to go after tenure for university professors. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker worked to weaken tenure protections at his state’s university system. A current bill in South Carolina would end tenure in that state. Georgia made it easier last year for administrators in public universities to fire tenured professors. Tenure has long been a target of Republican state officials seeking to reduce the status of the professors they see as elitist liberals.
Tenure, of course, is complicated, involving complicated and school-specific standards. Some schools have suspiciously biased tenure patterns. But at its best, tenure serves two important purposes. First, it protects researchers from reprisals. Academics may produce findings that make state leaders uncomfortable or defensive — tenure helps assure that findings are not suppressed and altered. Think, for example, of recent academic debates over whether voter ID and other voting restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and actually reduce turnout. This is an important discussion that quite legitimately makes people on all sides of it uncomfortable. But researchers must be able to pursue the truth without fear of losing their jobs.
Second, tenure is a valuable perk for professors who could typically make more money in another line of work. In both these senses, tenure helps keep top scholarly talent at universities producing important and occasionally critical and politically unpopular research.
By seeking to phase out scholars from one of the largest public university systems in the country, Patrick is pushing to reshape the academic world completely. And his actions will doubtless embolden other state university systems that also want to erode tenure. One could argue that academics who really want tenure protections are free to look for work in other universities in other states, but the academic job market has never been that great, and it definitely isn’t now. Doctorate holder who accept Texas jobs — perhaps out of necessity — will be muted and their career prospects limited as a result.
But Patrick’s second announcement, that he is seeking to revoke tenure protections for professors who teach critical race theory, is even more sinister. It’s important to note first that very few professors outside of law school actually teach critical race theory. Rather, the term “critical race theory” for public officials like Patrick has come to mean any lessons involving race, identity and/or history that conservatives do not like. For some, critical race theory now just means any history lesson that might make white students feel bad. It’s not hard to guess who will be blamed for teaching these sorts of lessons, and who will more readily be fired or silenced as a result.
Faculty diversity has not increased as quickly but it has increased, and schools are increasingly prioritizing it.
One of the remarkable features of higher education in America is that, for all its problems and increasing costs, it is educating a larger and more inclusive group of young people than ever before. (At the University of Texas, Austin, for example, the Latino percentage of undergraduates has risen over the past decade from 19 to 24 percent.) And while college was once largely a way for the upper classes to perpetuate themselves, today there is an increased focus on bringing in first-generation students and retaining them through graduation. Faculty diversity has not increased as quickly but it has increased, and schools are increasingly prioritizing it.
What Patrick is doing could help reverse these trends. It’s an attempt to whiten public universities by driving out or silencing faculty of color and their allies. And no, I’m not inserting race into a discussion of tenure — Patrick already did that, overtly, in his statement.
Great public university systems with top scholars educating millions of students at (relatively) low cost are legitimately one of the U.S.' greatest accomplishments. We are watching that accomplishment being dismantled before our eyes.