For thousands of Texas professors seeking tenure, a bill banning the benefit could be a turning point in their careers

Tara Goddard, assistant professor within the Texas A&M School of Architecture's Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, sits at her home office in College Station. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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Eleven years ago, Tara Goddard left her city planning job to pursue a doctorate degree, setting a new course for her career.

A self-proclaimed “research nerd,” she yearned to study why some people use public transportation and others don’t. Six years later, Ph.D. in hand, she landed a competitive job as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Over the last six years, Goddard taught courses on city planning and transportation, brought in around $350,000 in research grants and published more than a half-dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on transportation safety. Based on her research, Texas lawmakers have filed bills to improve the way the state thinks about car crashes.

This spring, Goddard, 43, started the arduous, yearlong process to apply for tenure. It’s the culmination of a journey that started with the expectation that, if all went well, she’d start the fall 2024 semester under a new, indefinite contract.

But if some conservative lawmakers in the Texas Legislature get their way, tenure won’t survive long enough in Texas for Goddard to get it.

Republican lawmakers, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have pledged this legislative session to end in Texas the nearly century-old practice used by universities across the country to give faculty an additional safeguard to pursue long-term, independent research — which, in turn, helps schools attract and retain sought-after talent.

Patrick proposed this idea over a year ago after he was outraged by a group of University of Texas at Austin faculty who issued a resolution in defense of academic freedom, the concept that faculty can teach and speak freely about their field of study without political or outside influence. Patrick accused the faculty of stoking “societal division,” claiming the professors felt they were above the law.

Under a bill that the Texas Senate already sent to the House, if a university system’s board of regents has not approved a professor for tenure by Jan. 1, 2024, they would no longer be able to earn that position in Texas. The move would not only make it hard for schools to recruit new faculty, it would throw the careers of nearly 5,000 Texas professors who are seeking the benefit into chaos, abruptly eliminating a benefit they have been working for years to earn and were hired with the understanding they could obtain.

“There’s so much I love about my job at A&M and I appreciate and I feel I contribute and bring to the role,” Goddard said. “But [the proposed ban] has made me think if tenure is going away, maybe I should think about looking at nonacademic jobs. … That’s a really big sea change for me to even think about. … I've just been working on this path.”

For faculty like Goddard, this legislation might mean a choice between working in the only state in the country without access to the job security that tenure offers, or leaving Texas and restarting the yearslong process to get the benefit elsewhere.

And while the Senate bill is expected to face opposition in the Texas House, faculty at major research universities across the state have told The Texas Tribune — and have testified in legislative committee hearings this session — that job candidates are already hesitating to accept positions at Texas schools.

“This [bill] has already materially damaged Texas higher education, just that it’s even come this far,” said Michael Harris, a professor at Southern Methodist University who researches higher education policy and has written a book on tenure. “If you’re debating an offer at a Texas public university or in another state where tenure is not under assault, you’d be crazy not to seriously consider an offer from another state.”

“A seven-year-long job interview”

When state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, defended his legislation on the Senate floor last month, he described tenure as outdated and said it protects faculty who can hurt the “brand” of a university. He argued that Texas universities could retain the best and brightest faculty with other types of employment contracts, similar to what’s used in the business world.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to make sure that productivity is maximized and that no one certainly relaxes based on lifetime guaranteed employment,” Creighton told lawmakers, adding that he felt the state should move toward a new model that guarantees a “return on investment.”

Harris said he viewed the arguments made by Texas lawmakers as a misunderstanding of tenure at best and, at worst, as “intentional misinformation” against an idea they don’t like.

“Tenure is a weird thing that doesn’t exist in most industries,” Harris said. “That makes it a prime target to point to higher education as being out of touch or disconnected from accountability or the realities of people’s experience.”

Many faculty feel the conversation about tenure in the Texas Capitol so far this legislative session has mischaracterized the goal of the benefit, minimized the amount of effort it takes to earn the title and misrepresents the reality of how tenure is awarded on college campuses.

“Those who are putting forward these bills and talking about it in the press and hearings don’t actually have a good grasp on the process, the timeline, what it actually entails, what it really looks like,” Goddard said.

[How Republicans’ threats to tenure and diversity might undercut their own efforts to advance Texas’ universities]

Many universities — especially top research schools or those striving to get to that level — use tenure as a vital recruitment tool to attract prestigious scholars, who in turn raise their university’s research acumen and national profile.

Faculty seek tenure because it provides more time and space to focus on ambitious research in their areas of expertise, rather than feeling pressured to write journal articles or rush through research to prove their professional worth. Tenure is especially attractive for those who are pursuing new scientific discoveries, conducting long-term studies or writing books, which can sometimes take decades to finish or even see any results.

It also keeps them unfettered from political pressures or outside demands as they pursue new knowledge or ideas that challenge a particular ideology or political doctrine.

“Tenure [protects] faculty in higher education institutions from the political winds of the moment, and that means for the lieutenant governor — who has some very particular political ideologies — faculty are not going to be responsive to those, and he doesn’t like that,” Harris said. “Tenure is, ‘I follow the data, I follow the research and I teach the facts in reality.’ Tenure helps me make sure I can do that [without interference] from the Legislature, from the university administration, from my colleagues. Students need that from me as a teacher, my research requires that kind of support. You just need that to be able to do the work we do.”

The path to tenure is not supposed to be easy. Since it comes with an indefinite contract, universities do not hand out the designation without meticulously vetting a candidate.

The long process is also meant to help universities make sure they’re hiring the best faculty — the ones who will produce the best research and raise the university’s standing.

“It’s the equivalent of a seven-year-long job interview,” Harris said.

The long road to tenure

Goddard was nervous to talk publicly about her tenure application because she worried about how it might impact the process, but agreed to speak to the Tribune about it because she felt it was important to understand the level of scrutiny that goes into reviewing candidates and granting the benefit.

Since she was hired as a tenure-track professor in 2017, Goddard has been on a nine-month annual contract that gets renewed depending on how well she’s progressing toward that goal.

Each year, she’s met with a committee of tenured faculty in her department who provide feedback on her teaching, research and other activities to support the university’s community, such as volunteering to advise a student group or serve on faculty committees.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it threw a wrench in many faculty members’ teaching and research progress. Things got even harder for Goddard, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later and had to take the fall semester off while she underwent chemotherapy.

This happened during her third year at the university, halfway through her six-year tenure track. Texas A&M requires faculty at that point to go through a more intensive review to make sure their teaching and research progress is on track to apply for the benefit. Despite her personal obstacles, Goddard continued to publish at least two journal articles per year, as she was advised to do.

This spring, she started the yearlong tenure review process that comes at the end of the track. When it’s all said and done later this year — if tenure still exists in the state — the Texas A&M administration, faculty in her department and other professors from outside the university will decide whether to give tenure to Goddard.

“We have to show that we have a good trajectory that says to the university, ‘this is someone we want to give more stability and a long-term horizon to,’” she said.

Right now, she’s gathering together her portfolio, known as a dossier, which includes typical application materials like a resume, a biography, a three-page written essay describing her body of work, and a list of grants received.

Then, Goddard has to compile a list of 10 candidates to independently review her work, according to Texas A&M’s tenure rules. These experts must be among the most experienced professors in her field and work at a university with the same level of research activity as Texas A&M. They cannot be Goddard’s friends, coworkers or collaborators, and she cannot have direct contact with them.

Once she compiles the list, Goddard will submit it to the promotion and tenure committee in her department, which will also come up with a separate list of possible people to review her dossier. Ultimately, the tenure committee picks five to seven people from outside the university to conduct the evaluation.

When those experts’ reviews come back, the tenure committee will compare them to their own in the fall. If everyone agrees on their recommendation, Goddard’s dossier will head to the university’s office of faculty affairs by December.

And if that office’s reviewers like what they see, the vice president of faculty affairs will send all of their recommendations to the university president at the beginning of 2024.

In February of next year, Texas A&M President Kathy Banks will consider and review the recommended professors. Those who make it through are sent to the university system Board of Regents, which will sign off on those recommendations next spring.

“The number of eyes on [tenure applications] and checks and balances in the process to make sure people are really earning it [is] nerve-wracking,” Goddard said.

Once a professor earns tenure, the checks and balances don’t stop there. They still participate in annual performance reviews that include student and department evaluations. Every five to six years, they undergo a post-tenure review, where they must again show they are making progress in their research, teaching and volunteer service at the university.

Faculty say this rigorous process already provides enough accountability to make sure that only the most deserving professors get tenure. Eliminating the benefit would potentially deprive the state’s public universities of that talent.

The proposed ban on tenure “is demoralizing, and lots of people are going to look to places where [tenure] still exists,” Goddard said.

Reading the writing on the wall

Ana Schwartz hates the cold. So when she got a tenure-track position at the University of Texas at Austin in the English department, she was thrilled to teach in a city where temperatures rarely drop below freezing.

Since then, she’s taught courses on literature written during the colonization of America and published a book on her research, which she started as a doctoral student. She loved seeing her Texas students track writings from the 17th and 18th centuries back to the places they grew up in the state. She’s built a strong network of friends among the faculty.

After five years at UT-Austin, the university said she is ready to start the tenure-review process. But she’s not sticking around to find out if she will earn the promotion. Instead, she decided to accept a faculty position at a private university on the east coast, starting in the fall.

Schwartz said the conversations in the Texas Capitol weren’t the main reason for her departure; the new job she’s taking was ultimately too good to pass up. But she said the creeping insecurity she has felt in Texas over the last year played a role.

“I would still deeply want to take [the new job] if none of this was going on,” she said. “But it would just be much harder for me to actually take it if I saw a brighter future here.”

Schwartz said the tenure bill — coupled with legislation to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion policies at public institutions and a proposal to prohibit a college or university professor from “compelling” a student to adopt certain political beliefs — made it clear to her that Texas universities could be heading down a worrisome path.

“There are powerful people who want to make the university scarier and more threatening to people whose research and sort of intellectual ambitions are to make the university a more expansive, inclusive and accessible space,” she said. “​​Even if this bill never comes into existence, the fact that it seems wise to pander to a base by threatening to eliminate tenure speaks of a sort of anti-intellectualism that is very disheartening from the standpoint of a professor.”

Leaving before she earned tenure in Texas will come with its costs. Schwartz will have to earn tenure based on the rules for tenure-track faculty at her new university, which could take up to eight years. The five years she’s worked at UT-Austin would not count toward that progress.

But to her, the direction she felt the Texas Legislature is taking made it worth it to make a fresh start.

“Even if they fail this time, what do we have to be worried about next time?” Schwartz asked.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University and 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.

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