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Texas House panel walks back senators' effort to ban tenure at public universities

Gabriel C. Pérez

Republicans in the Texas House do not see eye to eye with their Senate colleagues on eliminating tenure at public universities.

Senate Bill 18 from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would prohibit universities from granting tenure to new professors. But on Monday, when the chair of the House Higher Education Committee introduced his version of SB 18, there was one big change to the legislation: Universities would still be able to grant tenure.

“I'd certainly suggest and personally believe that tenure needs to be offered,” state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, told his fellow committee members.

Kuempel’s version of SB 18, which The Texas Tribune obtained ahead of the hearing, would allow universities to continue to grant tenure and codify it in state law. The legislation would also require university governing boards to adopt policies for revoking tenure if a faculty member has engaged in unprofessional conduct or displayed professional incompetence, for example.

Kuempel’s bill also allows universities to dismiss tenured faculty for “good cause as defined in the institution’s policies.”

Despite the changes, some Democrats on the committee still had concerns about the updated bill. State Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin, questioned whether it was even necessary in the first place, saying universities have handled tenure perfectly well without state intervention. He also pointed out if the House approves the bill, it will head back to the Senate, which earlier voted to ban tenure.

“While I think you’ve done a great job with the committee [substitute], working on large bills in the past with the Senate, I worry about how this progresses forward,” he told Kuempel.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has made it clear eliminating tenure is one of his top priorities during the 88th legislative session.

Opposition from professors

Democratic lawmakers were not the only ones concerned about SB 18. Professors who testified at Monday's hearing said any attempts to weaken tenure would be harmful to public universities.

Ashley Farmer, an associate professor at UT Austin, told the panel there is a misconception about what tenure means for faculty.

"While many think of tenured professors as sitting around in their elbow-patch jackets or aimlessly roaming and rambling around campus, nothing can be further from the case,” she said. “The work is only beginning for those of us who have cleared the tenure hurdle.”

“Public universities in Texas would become very different places. They wouldn’t be the intellectual powerhouses that they are right now."
UT Austin professor Karma Chávez

Farmer said getting tenure allows professors to launch ambitious and long-term projects that bring universities prestige. She said tenured faculty also work with even more students, including those working toward PhDs.

“We all want the same thing here: to have the best schools in the nation and to be able to invest in and serve our students and communities,” she said. “We have been doing this to great success before now. Please don’t allow this bill to undercut our efforts.”

Farmer also told lawmakers there is already a rigorous review process in place for faculty.

UT Austin professor Brian Evans testified that tenure helps guarantee academic freedom.

“Tenure protects professors in developing and disseminating new knowledge from all viewpoints, including conservative, moderate, liberal and apolitical,” he said.

Evans also said he was worried about the provision in the House committee substitute that allows only a university’s governing board to grant tenure. He said faculty should play a role in evaluating colleagues, as recommended by the American Association of University Professors.

“Faculty members have the disciplinary and other expertise to judge the work of their colleagues,” he said.

Ultimately, Texas professors say eliminating or weakening tenure will make it hard for universities in the state to attract and retain top talent.

“Public universities in Texas would become very different places," UT Austin professor Karma Chávez told KUT ahead of the hearing. "They wouldn’t be the intellectual powerhouses that they are right now."

SB 18 is not the only Senate priority bill that seeks to make major changes to university policy. The House Higher Education Committee also heard testimony Monday on a bill that the Texas Senate passed to ban diversity, equity and inclusion offices at public colleges and universities.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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