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The GOP’s trend of self-destructive bills continues with its attacks on tenure

By design, tenured professors are exceedingly difficult to fire. Disturbingly, Republicans across the country are working to change that.
Image: The University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
The University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville in 2016.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

There are so many Republican wars on things, including critical race theory, transgender rights, gay rights and reproductive freedoms, that it can be hard to keep track of all the sorties, rampages and carnage. But the GOP’s concerted, relentless, multistate war on tenure is something that Americans don’t appear to be sufficiently worried about.

The GOP’s concerted, relentless, multistate war on tenure is something that Americans don’t appear to be sufficiently worried about.

This month, the Republican-controlled Texas Senate approved a bill that would ban tenure for all new hires effective Jan. 1 (final approval is still pending). South Carolina and Iowa recently tried but failed to do precisely this. Republicans in North Carolina are behind a similar initiative. At the same time, GOP legislators in Louisiana have proposed “annual tenure review.” Regular post-tenure review” laws have been approved in Georgia and Tennessee. And language was just removed from a Florida bill that would have allowed a university's trustees to demand a review of a professor's tenure "at any time."

Wednesday, conservatives whom Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the board of trustees at New College of Florida controversially voted to deny five professors tenure

Tenure is widely misunderstood. It’s a mechanism that binds a school to a scholar, potentially for decades. That’s because it guarantees a lifetime appointment after a researcher and/or teacher has passed a rigorous probationary period of usually six years. Once tenured, professors are exceedingly difficult to fire. The laws and bills mentioned above were drafted by Republicans who would like to make it less difficult, even easy. 

Critics imagine the tenure system to be a vast afforestation project that yields metric tons of “dead wood,” a term higher-ed insiders use to describe scholars who stop working the moment they are granted tenure and live large for decades. This vision of whiny, wine-and-cheese-consuming layabouts is quite the cliché. The majority of tenured professors are insanely overworked, and according to surveys many are quite unhappy

Contrary to the misinformation that’s out there, the tenure system wasn’t constructed to give opinionated liberals a place to kick back and corrupt America’s youth. The tenure system was constructed in 1940 because so many scholars with unpopular perspectives, on all points of the political spectrum, kept disappearing into the night.  No tenure, no academic freedom. It’s as simple as that.

Texas’ Senate Bill 18 is one of the more extreme versions of the widespread Republican attack on the American professoriate. It’s also quite fascinating in that it links the GOP’s aversion to academe with its regressive racial politics.  

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is an architect of Texas’ anti-tenure bill. According to The Texas Tribune, his quest started “after some University of Texas at Austin professors passed a nonbinding resolution defending their academic freedom to teach about issues like racial justice.” The Austin American-Statesman quoted Patrick saying, “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.”

Passing such a law would obviously hurt Texas’ highly regarded public universities, but it’s just as obvious that when today’s Republican Party can exercise raw political power, it will, no matter how self-destructive or senseless that exercise of that power might be. 

If Republicans are victorious in their anti-tenure crusade, they may irreversibly transform the country’s colleges and universities, public and private, in red and blue states. The consequences for the free speech of experts — which is what tenure protects — would be seismic, and this is what should worry all Americans, regardless of political perspective.

But if tenure at American universities does collapse, those conservatives won’t be the only culprits. As I've written before, the practice of granting a scholar employment until the scholar chooses to retire (there is no mandatory retirement age for a tenured professor) is in a very bad way. It would be inaccurate to say Republicans alone are responsible for this.

If tenure at American universities does collapse, then those conservatives won’t be the only culprits.

American colleges and universities, which aren’t generally ruled by hard-core conservatives, have spent decades pursuing a disastrous, fratricidal policy of “casualizing” academic labor. They have stopped committing resources to what are known as “tenure-lines,” which are expensive. Instead, they have dragooned an infinitely cheaper “contingent” labor force.

That casualized labor force includes “adjuncts,” who are paid miserable wages and have no job protections whatsoever, and “full-time non-tenure line” scholars who are offered renewable term contracts at very modest salaries. The American Association of University Professors reports that from 1987 to 2021, the share of tenured professors dropped from 39% to 24%, while the share of contingent faculty rose from 47% to 68%. I and others have argued that if these trends continue, then within two decades, tenure will exist only at elite institutions. 

If 2021, Texas employed more than 25,000 professors who either had tenure or were on the tenure track. If Texas bans tenure for the next generation, this downward trend line will be accelerated. It could morally license public universities in blue states and eventually private institutions in all states to proceed apace with their vicious casualization of scholarly labor.

American university leaders have bludgeoned tenure out of greed, misplaced priorities and a desire to keep their boards of trustees happy. The conservatives we're discussing here have no problem with any of that; they’ve been slashing public education budgets to the bone for decades. 

They have, however, additional motivations for sacking the enfeebled institution of tenure. Pundits speak of a “diploma divide,” in which higher levels of educational attainment correlate with a higher tendency to vote for Democrats. So when Republicans attack higher education, they are trying to destroy a vast, national, quad-based, Frisbee-friendly incubator for people who may be more likely to conclude their policies are utterly imbecilic.

Tenure also threatens these conservatives because it is the only mechanism we have ever developed to protect experts and their ideas from nonexperts in high places. Republicans understand that a tenured professor with a modicum of bravery may become an existential threat to their policy priorities. A tenured environmental scientist, Second Amendment scholar, critical race theorist is immune to gratuitous displays of power.

Tenure is the only mechanism we have ever developed to protect experts and their ideas from nonexperts in high places.

An individual scholar can challenge, question and often undermine Republican versions of reality. On top of that, a unified tenured faculty can’t be brought to heel. Once upon a time, professors used to run their institutions. That era of “faculty governance” has given way to “shared governance.” That’s what happens when you decimate tenure. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would have an easier time taming Disney than winning a fight with the raucous university senate of yore. 

I would be the first to say (and I have said) that tenure has its shortcomings and needs to be rethought. But the consequences of abolishing it would be devastating. Deplatforming expertise, silencing dissent, punishing heterodoxy are the ways the university becomes “capturable.” The wealthiest, the most numerous or the most violent actors (or some combo thereof) would bend the professoriate to their will. 

A few conservatives have grasped that Texas’ policy is ultimately self-destructive. A professor writing for The Federalist reasons: “Without tenure, no rational conservative or centrist professor who dissents from wokeness would accept a job at these states’ public universities.”

I concur! And I politely advise conservatives and, yes, progressives and liberals to ponder what would happen to the production of knowledge, the free exchange of ideas and their children’s education were the Republicans' war on tenure to succeed.