Wednesday, December 6, 2023

American Historical Association opposes Texas legislation eliminating tenure

WASHINGTON, DC — On April 26, the American Historical Association (AHA) sent a letter to the members of the Texas House of Representatives opposing State Bill 18 (SB 18), which would eliminate tenure for new hires at public institutions in the state beginning in 2024.

“Tenure helps to protect university classrooms and laboratories as spaces where learning is advanced and new knowledge is created, rather than any given political platform promoted,” the AHA writes. “Were Texas to eliminate ‘tenure-track’ positions . . . any public university in Texas would immediately become an employer of last choice among scholars who desire an environment amenable to high-quality teaching and research.”

The letter, authored by James R. Grossman, Executive Director of AHA lauds the state of Texas for its substantial investment in higher education and its commitment to the central role of history in higher education curriculum. However, SB 18 would undermine rather than nourish inquiry and learning and conflict with the state’s goals of making Texas public universities more competitive, he argues.

Tenure, instituted nearly a century ago, was developed not as a sinecure, but to guarantee the academic freedom necessary to assure integrity and innovation in research and teaching. A tenured scholar could ask controversial questions in the classroom and while developing new research. Scholarly pathways could then draw from creativity, expertise, and evidence without being limited by state mandates or pressure, he explains. Tenure protects university classrooms and laboratories as spaces where learning is advanced and where new knowledge is created, uninfluenced by any political platform. American universities draw faculty and students from around the world because of their research and educational advantages that follow from principles of academic freedom, he explains.


(Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash)

“Despite occasional media misrepresentations, tenure is not a license to slack off or to engage in untoward behavior. Higher education institutions in general, including public institutions in Texas, evaluate faculty performance annually and articulate standards of behavior, violation of which is grounds for dismissal even for tenured faculty,” Grossman explains.

Eliminating tenure for new hires would diminish Texas universities, he argues, giving them a disadvantage in attracting top faculty. He explains that faculty achieve their credentials only after long years of intensive graduate training.

Eliminating tenure would make Texas universities a last choice among scholars who desire an environment amenable to high-quality teaching and research, he said. “Although academic job markets vary across disciplines, candidates are unlikely to opt for institutions where their research and teaching will not benefit from the academic freedom guaranteed by tenure,” he says.

Without protections of tenure, teachers would shy away from innovative research questions, tilting toward “safe” explorations less likely to generate the breakthroughs of top research institutions. “Without tenure, a teacher avoids controversy, including the kinds of issues that students need and want to engage to become future leaders,” Grossman explains.

SB 18 requires that all faculty contracts be limited to three years or fewer. Such short contracts, he argues, would prevent expert faculty from initiating the kinds of projects that produce advances in human knowledge and change the world. Further, with artificially short timelines, Texas faculty would no longer be eligible for long-term federal grants that fund most science research, he explains, helping Texas to lose a generation of highly trained experts, he argues. If Texans want returns on public funds investments, the state should not only make financial investments in its infrastructure, he argues, but also in the development of expertise and innovation in its public universities. This requires long-term support for those individuals whose dedication makes those returns possible, he said.

Grossman concludes, stating “SB 18 would instantly and irrevocably depreciate the value of the state’s admirable monetary investments in higher learning” while urging the Texas House of Representatives to reject SB 18 in the interest of maintaining the integrity, reputation, and quality of the public universities in Texas.


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