Last month, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced a plan to phase out all tenure in Texas’ public colleges and universities, as well as to revoke tenure for those who teach critical race theory. These changes would have a dramatic impact on public education in Texas and, ultimately, across the United States, undermining academic freedom and jeopardizing a world-class higher education system.
If you were to make a list of the most significant contributions made by the United States to the world, our public university systems would have to be near the top. According to U.S. News rankings, 15 of the world’s top 20 universities are American, with five of them being public. The United States dominates Nobel Prizes and other scholarly achievements as a result of these and other universities, and it educates tens of millions of students each year. Approximately a million students from other countries attend American colleges and universities each year. Those on student visas primarily return to their home countries, where they spread the knowledge and values they acquire here.
Surprisingly, this is not widely celebrated. Worse, America’s public universities are currently under attack from a variety of sources, threatening both our educational integrity and global reputation, not to mention the impact such attacks may have on student opportunities.
But there’s a more immediate threat at work, and Patrick is just the latest instigator. Patrick is far from the first state leader to seek tenure. Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, worked to weaken tenure protections at his state’s university system. A current bill in South Carolina would put an end to tenure. Last year, Georgia made it easier for administrators at public universities to fire tenured professors. Tenure has long been a target of Republican state officials seeking to lower the status of professors they perceive to be elitist liberals.
Tenure is, of course, complicated, with complex and school-specific standards. Some schools appear to have suspiciously skewed tenure patterns. However, at its best, tenure serves two important functions. For starters, it shields researchers from retaliation. Academics may produce findings that make state leaders uneasy or defensive; tenure helps ensure that these findings are not suppressed or altered. Consider recent academic debates over whether voter ID laws and other voting restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and reduce turnout. This is an important debate that legitimately makes people on all sides uncomfortable. Researchers, on the other hand, must be able to pursue the truth without fear of losing their jobs.
Patrick is attempting to completely reshape the academic world by attempting to phase out scholars from one of the country’s largest public university systems. And his actions will undoubtedly embolden other state university systems that want to undermine tenure as well. One could argue that academics who truly desire tenure protections are free to seek employment at other universities in other states, but the academic job market has never been that good, and it certainly isn’t now. Doctorate holders who accept Texas jobs, perhaps out of necessity, will be muted, and their career opportunities will be limited as a result.
However, Patrick’s second announcement, that he intends to revoke tenure protections for professors who teach critical race theory, is even more sinister. It is important to note, first and foremost, that critical race theory is taught by very few professors outside of law school. Rather, for public officials like Patrick, the term “critical race theory” has come to mean any lessons about race, identity, and/or history that conservatives do not accept. Some people now define critical race theory as any history lesson that might make white students feel bad. It’s easy to predict who will be blamed for teaching such lessons, and who will be fired or silenced as a result.
What Patrick is doing has the potential to reverse these trends. It is an attempt to whiten public universities by removing or silencing faculty of color and their allies. And, no, I’m not bringing race into the discussion of tenure; Patrick did so explicitly in his statement.
Great public university systems with top scholars educating millions of students at (relatively) low cost are unquestionably among the greatest achievements of the United States. We are witnessing the dismantling of that achievement right in front of our eyes.