Restricting college tenure could hurt state economies, many warn
Students walk past the iconic tower at the University of Texas at Austin, in Austin, Texas. Republican lawmakers there have pushed to eliminate or weaken tenure, and legislatures across the country are considering similar measures. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)
Daniel Brinks, who chairs the government department at the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t usually have a tough time recruiting professors. After all, UT is one of the best research universities in the country, located in a high-tech boomtown with a thriving music scene, a warm climate and first-rate enchiladas.
But this year, in “a pretty significant change,” Brinks said, eight candidates turned down job offers. Several of them cited events transpiring a few blocks south of campus, at the Texas Capitol, where some Republican lawmakers were pushing to eliminate tenure at state colleges and universities.
Anti-tenure Republicans in Texas — and in other states including Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and South Carolina — have said they want to rein in unaccountable professors who are pushing a liberal agenda in the classroom.
Supporters of tenure, which professors typically must earn after years of teaching and publishing original research, argue that it protects academic freedom. Without it, they say, professors might be wary of taking on controversial topics for fear of being fired.
“American higher education is the envy of the world because of the current system,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, told Stateline. “These bills that weaken tenure or limit tenure are bills that will undermine the quality of education in the state.”
But defenders of tenure — a practice adopted in its current form in 1940 — have deployed another argument that goes beyond academic freedom: Attacks on tenure are a threat to state economies. That argument, used by Brinks in Texas and others elsewhere, has figured prominently in debates over tenure in several states.
“If you no longer can attract the top researchers, you no longer have people developing cutting-edge technologies, cutting-edge medical innovations,” Brinks told Stateline, echoing testimony he delivered to Texas legislators.
The top teachers and researchers receive federal grants, Brinks noted, “and if you don’t have the top researchers in the various fields here, then that source of funds, which is millions and millions of dollars, it just goes away.”
Despite such concerns, the Texas Senate in April approved legislation that would have prohibited public colleges and universities from granting tenure to faculty members, starting in 2024.
“Tenured university professors are the only people in our society that have the guarantee of a job,” Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said upon passage of the bill. “These professors claim ‘academic freedom’ and hide behind their tenure to continue blatantly advancing their agenda of societal division.”
But the Texas House last month approved a much milder version, allowing schools to fire tenured faculty for “professional incompetence” or “conduct involving moral turpitude.” That version is the one the legislature sent to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it into law.
State Rep. John Kuempel, the Republican who authored the House version, said it would “provide accountability while maintaining an environment that is conducive to recruiting and retaining the best faculty and researchers in the state and nation.”
The economic argument also has surfaced in Ohio, where the state Senate last month approved a sweeping higher education bill that aims to promote “intellectual diversity” on campuses. The measure would mandate a yearly performance review for faculty, including those with tenure.
Shortly before the vote, state Sen. Jerry Cirino, the Republican sponsor of the bill, argued that the legislation would attract more students and faculty to Ohio. The bill is still pending in the House.
“When all is said and done here, our universities are going to be better,” Cirino said. “We are going to attract more people who have been turned away because of the liberal bias that is incontrovertible in our institutions in Ohio.”
But Democratic state Rep. Joe Miller argued the opposite, citing a study released last month which found that Ohio’s 14 public universities had a $68.9 billion impact on the state’s economy in fiscal year 2021-2022 — 8.8% of Ohio’s total gross state product. The study also found that the universities and their students supported nearly 867,000 jobs, 1 in 8 in Ohio.
The legislation would “make it extremely difficult to attract students and faculty to Ohio, which will be extraordinarily damaging to our economy, financially impacting cities from Akron, to Athens, Kent and Columbus,” Miller said in a statement.
“We’re one of the few states, particularly of our size, to have two tier-one research institutions, so doing things to damage their reputation has broad implications,” Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, told the Business Record in explaining his group’s opposition to anti-tenure bills in his state.
If you no longer can attract the top researchers, you no longer have people developing cutting-edge technologies, cutting-edge medical innovations.
– Daniel Brinks, chair of the government department at the University of Texas at Austin
There is little doubt that research universities are economic engines.
In a recent review of relevant research, the Brookings Institution think tank cited studies showing that higher state spending on universities leads to more patents and entrepreneurship; that each new patent creates 15 jobs outside the university in the local economy; and that regions that became home to a land grant university over a century ago have stronger economies than regions without one.
Joshua Drucker, a University of Illinois Chicago associate professor who has written about the economic impact of research institutions, said the millions of dollars that top researchers bring into their universities are “pure addition to a region,” and that curbing tenure could diminish that flow.
“What I expect to happen if tenure is severely weakened, but only in some places, [is that] those places would then have to spend a lot more to get top talent or they will lose the top talent,” he said.
Brinks, a top expert in his field who has secured funding from the National Science Foundation and worked with researchers around the world, said he always thought the University of Texas “was the perfect place for me.”
“I really like the mission of a public university in a place like Texas. I think we do something that’s really important to the state,” he said. “But to the extent that this atmosphere of questioning and even hostility to our mission and what we do continues, then it does occasionally raise questions about going to a private university or going out of state.
“It’s dispiriting to find that you’re the object of suspicion when you think what you’re doing is really important and valuable.”
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