UT-Austin tried to hire a game theorist for its new free-enterprise think tank. He turned down the job because of fights over tenure.

The University of Texas at Austin campus. (Tamir Kalifa For The Texas Tribune, Tamir Kalifa For The Texas Tribune)

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It was going to take Keith Schnakenberg a lot to leave his tenured position at Washington University in St. Louis, where he has worked in the political science department since 2016.

But when he got a message from a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s business school encouraging him to apply for a faculty position in the business, government and society department, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.

The job also included a three-year place at the Civitas Institute, the new center at UT-Austin that focuses on “individual rights and civic virtue, constitutionalism, and free enterprise and markets” and has faced sharp criticism from faculty and students after it was revealed that the center was conceived with the help of state lawmakers like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and conservative donors.

After a whirlwind visit in March, Schnakenberg got the job offer earlier this month. It came with tenure and a competitive salary. The university offered to cover moving expenses and provide money for new equipment.

But last week, he turned down Texas’ top research university.

The decision represents an odd twist in the current political debate over higher education in Texas. Conservatives, led by Patrick, have sought to tamp down a perceived liberal bias at the state’s universities by proposing to ban diversity and equity initiatives, eliminate tenure and create the Civitas Institute. But in this case, one priority seemed to have worked against another.

In an email that he shared with The Texas Tribune, Schnakenberg told Kishore Gawande, head of the business school’s government department, and Justin Dyer, head of the Civitas Institute, that he decided to take the counter-offer provided by his current university. He told them the political climate in Texas played a role, too.

“I must admit I have been closely following the activities of the Texas Legislature for the past couple of weeks, which has highlighted to me some potential risks that were not in the front of my mind at the outset of this process,” he wrote.

Supporters of Senate Bill 18 argue that tenure provides professors with a “lifetime appointment” that makes it hard to hold them accountable when they do or say something that hurts the “brand” of a university and that they use that job protection to sow division and spread liberal ideology. While Schnakenberg said he wasn’t initially too concerned by the political debate over tenure in Texas, as it started to heat up in May, he’d seen enough.

“What I saw is signs that the institution was maybe being politicized in a way that might undermine the mission of the university and what I would want to do there,” he told the Tribune. “If I moved from my current job, which is a decent job, to UT, what kind of intellectual community can I build there?”

Neither Gawande nor Dyer immediately responded to a request for comment.

Patrick helped create the Civitas Institute to bring “intellectual diversity” to UT-Austin. The Civitas Institute was first called the Liberty Institute when the state Legislature funded it in 2021. Recently, the University of Texas System Board of Regents voted to create a new college that would house the institute. Schnakenberg said he thought the institute was interested in him because of his research on the relationship between politics and business.

“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote last year on social media after a group of professors signed a resolution supporting their academic freedom to teach about race and gender. “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.”

But it was the focus on tenure, a long-established practice that universities use to provide researchers with continuous employment, that caused Schnakenberg the most concern.

“The debates give some reason for pessimism even beyond the specific content of the bill,” Schnakenberg said. “Just the sort of general push for the bill has to do with a desire in some ways to politicize or have political intervention in the activities of the university.”

Right now, the Senate and House are far apart on whether and how Texas universities should continue to award tenure to faculty. The Texas House is expected to give final approval to its version of the legislation Tuesday, which would codify tenure policies in state law. The proposal is dramatically different from the Senate’s plan to ban tenure entirely starting in 2024. If the Senate doesn’t accept the changes to the bill, lawmakers from both chambers will have to negotiate a version they can agree on during closed-door meetings. The two chambers have until Friday to come to a deal, which will also require approval of the full House and Senate again before the bill can go to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Keith Schnakenberg is an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Keith Schnakenberg is an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Credit: Washington University in St. Louis website

Faculty across the state have overwhelmingly opposed both versions of the legislation, arguing it would make it impossible to recruit and retain top researchers without tenure. They are also concerned that the House version, which directs university system leaders to establish tenure policies as directed in state law, is too vague and could be weaponized by university or state leaders to fire faculty who say or do something with which they disagree.

Schnakenberg said tenure allows faculty “to pursue knowledge in a sort of uncompromised way” and take “intellectual risks.” He said Patrick’s assessment of universities as places where leftist ideology runs rampant didn’t mesh with his experience in higher education, though he said that academia could work to better earn the public’s trust in its work and mission.

The position that Schnakenberg was offered at UT would’ve allowed him to continue his teaching and research career as a game theorist, which studies strategy and interactive decision-making among groups of people. He develops mathematical models with a research focus on lobbying and campaign finance.

When he came to UT-Austin in March to visit the campus and meet the Civitas Institute’s leaders, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in political activity, and he said they were receptive. He said he doesn’t identify as a conservative and his research doesn’t get particularly political, but he is concerned about the political fights that might impact those in his department who teach about more contentious topics like race. He also said he sees the push to end tenure as “misguided” because the job benefit protects unpopular opinions on college campuses, which can include conservative voices.

House Speaker Dade Phelan made a similar argument last year when asked to weigh in on Patrick’s intentions to end tenure.

Many of Schnakenberg’s concerns went beyond the contract UT-Austin offered him, which would have allowed him to keep tenure even if the state bans the practice because he would’ve started before the bill’s proposed effective date. But as an associate professor, Schnakenberg said he was concerned about how he and the university could convince younger faculty to join.

“When you go somewhere as a senior faculty member, you’ re thinking about, ‘OK … how am I going to build that department?” Schnakenberg said. “If I go there and I have tenure, but they don’t have tenure — and what I want to do is build a group in my field — that sounds very difficult because junior faculty wouldn’t want to come.”

Schnakenberg isn’t the only person to decline a job offer for the fall at Texas’ top flagship. Daniel Brinks, chair of the government department at UT-Austin, told lawmakers at a public hearing earlier this month that he made six job offers to fill two positions this spring and was turned down every time.

“People turn down jobs for lots of reasons, but from what these candidates told me, the uncertainty around tenure was a big factor in our failure to hire this year,” he told the House Higher Education Committee.

Other states are following Texas’ efforts to ban tenure, including Ohio and North Carolina, where lawmakers are weighing similar proposals. Schnakenberg said that — and the proposals to ban diversity, equity and inclusion offices on college campuses — only made the decision to stay at a private university like Washington University more attractive.

“We’re lucky to be in the United States as academics because this is the premier place to do it,” Schnakenberg said. “I just wonder if that’s going to be true in, let’s say, a decade, or if it’ll be true but in a different way, where it’s concentrated at private universities. … My hope is that these big, great public research universities remain top places in the world, but this is a difficult time because of that, and because of how widespread it is.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System 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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