Tenure has been called the “holy grail” of the teaching profession — at least, that’s how Time Magazine put it.
Its establishment in the U.S. is often drawn back to the 1940s and a proclamation issued by a consortium of colleges and professors called the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That document made the case that a sufficient degree of economic certainty was essential to make the profession attractive to the best and the brightest.
Since then, tenure has become a staple in colleges and universities nationwide; though tenure doesn’t guarantee lifetime employment, it does make firing professors a difficult and costly process. And in the Texas Legislature, this issue has become politicized as lawmakers in the Senate weigh a bill that would end the practice for the next generation of faculty in Texas higher education.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, who covers the Capitol for the Texas Newsroom, said the proposal would not strip tenure from currently tenured faculty.
“This proposal would have a significant impact on the university system here in Texas. Under this legislation, new professors hired at the state’s public anywhere cities would not be eligible for tenure,” he said. “Current professors with tenure would not be affected, and they will be able to keep their appointment. But also, this legislation allows the Board of Regents of the university to create a different tier system for faculty, and they would also require professors to undergo reviews every single year.”
This bill is one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities. Patrick has openly opposed the tenure system since a faculty council at the University of Texas voted in 2021 to teach about critical race theory and talk about race in the classroom, Martínez-Beltrán said.
“Senator Brandon Creighton, who is a Republican from Conroe, is carrying the bill,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “He says this bill would end what he calls a guaranteed lifetime appointment. Of course, a lot of the rhetoric coming from the Republicans have to do with how they perceive academia. You know, they say there’s a lot of liberal professors. And I think they’ve also hinted at this notion of kind of ‘lazy professors’ in the state universities who will always have a job under the current tenure system if nothing changes.
“We’ve heard from social scientists, professors who say tenure is sort of a protection for them when they teach issues where people might disagree,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “It’s also about research. Some professors that have come to the Texas Capitol to testify against the bill and talk about the importance of tenure in their careers have talked about this.”
Pharmacology professor Andrea Gore, who teaches at UT Austin, told lawmakers recently that her tenured position allowed her to conduct research that ultimately brought $10 million in funding to her department, according to Martínez-Beltrán.
“She also said that tenure has allowed her to take the kind of risks that were needed to do cutting-edge research and make discoveries in her field without the worry of being fired,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “Now, one thing I think it’s important to note is that universities cannot testify in favor or against a bill. Instead, they can speak on the bill serving as sort of a research witness. And some of the general counsels representing Texas universities have said that the current tenure system is not a lifetime appointment; professors could actually be stripped from their tenure status if they break school policy. And there’s also this general concern that prohibiting offers of tenure would make it really hard for universities to recruit professors.”
Martínez-Beltrán said this bill is almost guaranteed to pass the Senate but might run into trouble in the House.
“It’s going to get very tricky when it’s sent to the Texas House. House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is also a Republican, has said that he opposes ending tenure,” Martínez-Beltrán said. “He says he worries about how it could affect recruiting efforts across the board and how it could actually negatively affect professors who are conservative.”