AUSTIN, Texas — A discussion to end tenure on Texas university campuses is not an attempt to muzzle faculty speech, and those who equate the two are simply taking easy political shots, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said during a hearing on Senate Bill 18 on Thursday afternoon.
Many of the tenured faculty members who testified equated the two, possibly because of the path Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took to make it a legislative priority. In the oft-told story, Patrick clashed with the UT Faculty Senate over the body’s support of the right to teach racial justice and critical race theory without the interference of regents or lawmakers.
Patrick’s statement at the time was that he would eliminate tenure at public universities, require tenured professors to be subject to review annually and define critical race theory in the state as a cause for a tenured professor to be dismissed.
“Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom,’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation,” Patrick said. “The Texas Senate will also take up giving Boards of Regents more authority to address issues of tenure.”
Patrick continued to double down on the subject during a sit-down discussion with the editor of conservative statewide news organization The Texan in January. Patrick said success on the tenure issue would look like “getting all these professors who don’t like America, who don’t like Texas, who don’t like capitalism, who are trying to pollute the minds of young people going to college… I’d just prefer to see them all in another state. That would be success.”
That drew a round of applause from the audience. During testimony on Thursday, Antonio Ingram, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, opened his comments by saying that a federal appeals court had upheld an injunction on Florida’s Stop Woke Act, the bill that curtailed discussion of critical race theory in both public schools and public universities.
The appeals court cited George Orwell’s book “1984” in its opinion and called the idea of punishing professors who express disfavored viewpoints “positively dystopian.”
“We are concerned that the effect of Senate Bill 18 will be very similar, especially on Black and Latinx professors who disproportionately teach courses that may not be within the state’s purview as appropriate, especially given the context of these bills in the larger scheme,” Ingram told the committee. “We’re afraid of this Orwellian sort of culture that may be produced.”
Tenure has not been attacked in a void, Ingram said. The subtext, especially given Patrick’s comments, is that lawmakers don’t want to punish all professors, just some professors.
“No one is really trying to fire the physics professor,” Ingram said. “They’re trying to fire the professors that teach women’s studies, gender studies, Black history, Black studies and we’re gravely concerned about the discrimination that this bill will be unleashing onto higher education in Texas.”
Creighton immediately pushed back, saying his interest in tenure long predated Patrick’s recent concerns. He accused Ingram of taking a bill on tenure and politicizing it. Revising tenure is an issue that has crossed states and crossed political parties.
“You don’t feel like both parties in all these states are going Orwellian, do you?” Creighton said. “A review of tenure, as a policy, along with definitions of ‘just cause’ is a very valid discussion.”
Creighton said he intended to be fair and balanced with his bill. To hear someone use Orwell was a cheap political shot, he said, not a thoughtful critique of the actual bill.
“If you just chalk it up to the easy layup on who’s bringing something based on a political win, then that’s easy testimony, right? There’s not a whole lot of depth,” Creighton said. “The thought process behind that — or a review of this on behalf of the public — it’s just an easy layup on a political jab.”
Creighton has yet to offer a substitute on his bill. The specific language of the introduced Senate Bill 18 simply incorporates three paragraphs in one chapter of the Education Code that eliminates tenure. Then it strikes all tenure references for the remaining paragraphs in the chapter.
Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, also expressed his annoyance with Ingram’s comments.
“I just want to say, I’m a little bit offended that you so narrowly prescribed the reasons for this bill, the chairman’s reasons and anyone else on the committee or in the legislature that’s considering it,” King said. “Because it’s a much broader question, it gets into how to manage employees.”
King said he was offended that Ingram presumed his viewpoint without visiting his office.
“I’ll be honest with you, that narrow view is just, frankly, offensive to me,” King said. “You’re a good man, and you do a good job down here, but I think that testimony was just over the top.”