Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposes ending university tenure to combat critical race theory teachings

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks at a press conference in 2021. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Friday that he will push to end professor tenure for all new hires at Texas public universities and colleges in an effort to combat faculty members who he says “indoctrinate” students with teachings about critical race theory.

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“Go to a private school, let them raise their own funds to teach, but we’re not going to fund them,” said Patrick, who is running for reelection. “I’m not going to pay for that nonsense.”

Patrick, whose position overseeing the Senate allows him to drive the state’s legislative agenda, also proposed a change to state law that could make teaching critical race theory grounds for revoking tenure for professors who already have it. His announcement tees up the next major fight at the Texas Capitol over how college students learn about the history of race and racism in the United States.

Conservatives over the past year have used “critical race theory” as a broad label to attack progressive teachings and books in college and K-12 schools that address race and gender.

Tenure is an indefinite appointment for university faculty that can only be terminated under extraordinary circumstances. Academics said Friday that tenure is intended to protect faculty and academic freedom from exactly the kind of politicization being waged by Patrick.

“This kind of attack is precisely why we have faculty tenure,” said Michael Harris, a professor at Southern Methodist University studying higher education, who likened tenure to lifetime appointments given to federal judges. “The political winds are going to blow at different times, and we want faculty to follow the best data and theory to try to understand what’s happening in our world.”

Patrick on Friday also proposed making tenure review an annual occurrence instead of something that takes place every six years. At the press conference, he said his proposals already have the support of state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Last legislative session, Creighton filed a bill that would have reduced tenure review periods to every four years and expanded the reasons universities could revoke tenure to include sexual harassment, fiscal malfeasance, plagiarism, conduct involving moral turpitude and “other good causes.” That bill never got out of committee. Nor did another bill that proposed revoking tenure for faculty members who file civil lawsuits against their students. Creighton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Patrick’s plan drew swift condemnation from the American Association of University Professors, the body that helped develop the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that has been adopted by universities and colleges nationwide.

“There’s always been attempts to interfere in higher education, but I have never seen anything as egregious as this attack,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP. “This is an attempt to have government control of scholarship and teaching. That is a complete disaster. I’ve never seen anything this bad.”

Mulvey said Patrick had a “fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of tenure” and his definition of academic freedom was “misguided.”

The Texas Faculty Association also criticized the idea and argued it will undermine the state’s future.

“The lieutenant governor’s job is to give our public institutions of education the support they need for student success, and that means encouraging professors and students to discuss theories and issues that some people may find uncomfortable,” said TFA spokesperson Pat Heintzelman. “Patrick, instead, seems intent on ignoring the First Amendment rights of faculty members and their students.”

According to federal data, about 53% of full-time faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin are tenured. Around 40% of all full-time instructional staffers at all public universities and health-related institutions were tenured in 2020.

Patrick said his latest priority is in response to the UT-Austin Faculty Council after it passed a nonbinding resolution Monday to reaffirm instructors’ academic freedom to teach on issues of racial justice and critical race theory.

“Legislative proposals and enactments seek to prohibit academic discussions of racism and related issues if the discussion would be ‘divisive’ or suggest ‘blame’ or cause ‘psychological distress,’” the resolution stated. “But fail to recognize that these criteria … chill the capacity of educators to exercise their academic freedom and use their expertise to make determinations regarding content and discussions that will serve educational purposes.”

One day after the resolution passed, Patrick signaled on Twitter that he would continue the fight against teaching the discipline in the next legislative session.

“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote on Twitter. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”

Patrick’s mention of publicly funded Liberty Institute, a new center that is still in the planning stages at UT-Austin, also drew criticism from UT-Austin professors. They said his comments suggesting lawmakers are behind the new center contradict previous statements by university officials. On Friday, Patrick said he meant that the resolution passed by the faculty council is an example of why the university needed such an institute.

The proposal to end tenure would fundamentally change the way Texas universities operate in terms of hiring, teaching and research. Faculty members warn it’s likely to impose major challenges for Texas universities to recruit and retain researchers and scholars from across the country.

“Your top-tier talent has lots of options,” Harris said. “And if you hurt your ability to hire the best, you’re not going to do that. … I guarantee you there are university leaders across the country that are making a shopping list of who they’re going to try to steal from the University of Texas if this goes through.”

Harris said even the headlines to propose ending tenure could hurt Texas universities that are hiring faculty members for next year who might think twice about whether to take a job at a public university.

In a statement, the first vice chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus slammed the plan.

“Our public universities are the keystone of Texas’ economic prowess,” said state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas. “As Republicans like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick make it their mission to undermine public trust in our education system, they will chase away the best and brightest students and educators our state needs to remain great.”

UT-Austin pharmacy professor Andrea Gore, chair of UT’s Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, brought the initial resolution forward to the UT Faculty Council. She told the Tribune she was shocked that a nonbinding resolution passed by the council would elicit such a reaction.

“Those resolutions are important because they allow us to assert our opinions and rights as faculty members, but they normally do not elicit any responses. In fact, they typically gather dust in the faculty council archives,” Gore wrote in an email to the Tribune. “What the [lieutenant governor’s] actions and words tell me is that not only has he been waiting for an opportunity to ban ideas that are counter to his own, he has been preparing to attack tenure as well.”

UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell has remained quiet on the issue. University spokesperson J.B. Bird did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Tribune after Patrick’s press conference Friday.

Domino Perez, president of the Faculty Council, said the council had no official comment but she awaits a response from Hartzell on the plan.

Patrick crusaded last summer against critical race theory in K-12 schools. He said it teaches that “one race is better than another and that someone, by virtue of their race or sex, is innately racist, oppressive or sexist.” Academic experts have said that interpretation is a misrepresentation of critical race theory.

Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed two laws that dictate how teachers can discuss race in the classroom. While neither used the phrase “critical race theory,” lawmakers who supported the measures characterized the legislation as anti-critical race theory.

Senate Bill 3 states a “teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The law doesn’t define what a controversial issue is. If teachers discuss these topics, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”

The law also also has provisions for teaching about the history of slavery in America, including that slavery cannot be taught as contributing to the “true founding of the United States” and that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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