Analysis: Giving professors freedom, so long as they agree with politicians

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to add language to the reasons a professor can be fired for just cause including teaching of critical race theory as a potential firing offense. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

If you would like to listen to the column, click on the play button below.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

Dan Patrick wants to defund the profs.

The lieutenant governor said he’s in favor of academic freedom, but he said it in the middle of a news conference where he proposed cutting off tenure for professors at state schools, and threatening the funding of public universities that teach critical race theory, a line of study that he says makes “oppressors” of white people and “victims” of people of color.

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

Here’s a prompt for a class discussion: CRT isn’t what made white people the oppressors and people of color the victims in Texas and American history. Argue for or against.

Patrick doesn’t want the variety of academic freedom that allows people to teach things he himself doesn’t agree with. It’s an old story: populist yahoos screeching at people in the ivory towers.

It makes a lie of the rest of what Patrick is saying — academic freedom and all that folderol — but it makes for a good speech in the tradition of blowhards like “Pappy” Lee O’Daniel and Huey Long.

Sanctimony is sanctimony, whether it comes from the top or the bottom.

Patrick got a quick response from the president of the University of Texas at Austin, the school where some defiant faculty members ruffled the lieutenant governor’s feathers by telling him to stuff it where it’s too dark to read. Tenure is intended to protect academics’ ability to consider, investigate and debate ideas without tiptoeing around popular culture, dogma, ambitious politicians and prim defenders of the status quo.

“Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members, it would also hurt Texas students, who would not be able to stay in state knowing that they will be learning from the very best in the country,” Hartzell wrote in a letter after Patrick’s news conference. “It would also increase the risk of universities across the state making bad decisions for the wrong reasons.”

That was bold, given his position — stuck between a lieutenant governor he wants to appease and a university community he was hired to lead. But in practical terms, getting rid of tenure in Texas, or threatening wayward professors from the confines of the Texas Capitol and the campaign trail, is a recruiting gift to universities in other states. Even California and New York.

The best academics tend to go to the best schools. Schools where politicians are telling you what can and cannot be taught don’t stay in the running for very long.

It’s bad news for public universities, from the big ones like UT-Austin and Texas A&M University to the small ones like Sul Ross State University and Texas Woman’s University.

It could be a plus for private schools like Rice University in Houston, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and Baylor University in Waco. They might have boards and donors meddling in their business, like all schools do, but they’re not under the thumbs of elected officials. And they’d be free to offer tenure to any coveted academics unable to get industry-standard tenure offers from state universities.

Patrick wants to add language to the reasons a professor can be fired for “just cause” — including teaching of critical race theory as a potential firing offense.

His tenure argument included an appeal to normal people, who don’t have tenure in their jobs. True enough, but it sounded funny coming from someone who effectively has four-year tenure terms between elections. Some professors get six-year tenure terms — the same length as a term on the Texas Railroad Commission.

If only we had a “just cause” clause for firing elected officials.

The characters change, but this politicians vs. professors fight isn’t new. In his book “Lone Star Tarnished,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, wrote about an 1897 skirmish between UT-Austin and the Texas Legislature over the political leanings of some of the people at the college down the street from the Capitol.

The Legislature passed a resolution “requesting the regents of the University to exercise great care hereafter in selecting as members of the faculty only those who are known to be in sympathy with Southern political institutions, and further request them to cancel as soon as possible any existing contract with members of the faculty not so in sympathy.”

In response, Jillson wrote, UT added William Stewart Simkins, a former leader of the Florida Ku Klux Klan, to the law school faculty.

Wonder if they’re allowed to teach anything about that in public universities in Texas?

Disclosure: Baylor University, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Sul Ross State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Christian University, Texas Woman’s University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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 Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.