College Tenure Under Fire In Oklahoma
A bill that could abolish tenure and threaten academic freedom at state college campuses has been introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature.
State Rep. Corey Holland, a Republican from Marlow, has introduced House Bill 2598, an approximately four-page measure that, if approved, would put professors and administrative staff on an annual contract system. The bill states that “ . . . on or after July 1, 2013, no administrative or instructional personnel may be awarded tenure, a multiyear contract, or a continuing contract . . .” College presidents would be exempted from the measure.
The bill also states:
Tenure, a multiyear contract, or a continuing contract in effect prior to July 1, 2013, may not be renewed, extended, or readopted. Administrative and instructional personnel without an annual contract are eligible to be awarded an annual contract pursuant to paragraph 3 of this subsection . . .
The language about those who currently hold tenure is somewhat nebulous. Would a post-tenure performance appraisal be construed as a renewal of tenure? Could the word “extended” in the above language mean tenure will expire for every current tenure holder?
Under the system created by the bill, an annual contract “shall not create an expectancy of employment beyond the term of the contract. Nonrenewal of a contract shall not entitle the employee to an explanation or statement of the reasons for nonrenewal or to a hearing . . . “
In other words, a professor could be essentially fired (i.e., no contract renewal) for an unstated reason.
It’s unclear right now how much support the bill will receive or whether it will even make it through the committee process. The academic community is certain to oppose the measure.
The measure can be seen as part of a small yet vocal national movement to abolish tenure, the cornerstone of academic freedom. In their rhetoric, opponents of tenure often try to stereotype professors as lazy and unproductive, but such labeling ignores reality.
Let’s be clear: Tenure is a system that supports academic free speech in the classroom. Tenured professors CAN be fired for just cause. Tenure merely guarantees due process and an open dialogue between administrators and faculty.
Academic free speech is as vitally important to freedom and democracy as free markets. It ensures critical inquiry will not be politicized and that professors can present ideas in classrooms that might not have current cultural support. An academic medical researcher, for example, might be searching for a cancer cure while working on what some might view as a controversial cloning project. A political science professor might want to argue an affirmative stance for Marxism to generate discussion. A history professor might want to teach American slave narratives that challenge standard views about the nation’s Civil War.
Meanwhile, the mythical depiction of the lazy, tenured professor with a cushy job for life just isn’t true. Here’s the truth at most public colleges: Professors spend years in college past their undergraduate years writing and researching. They often accrue massive amounts of student loan debt and end up in highly sought-after and competitive jobs that don’t necessarily pay that well because they have a calling to teach and study. After five years or so of performance reviews and student evaluations, professors go through an intensive tenure process that includes rigorous review by fellow professors and administrators. If they make it through the process they are normally given a small raise and move up the ranks from assistant to associate professor. (Remember, many of these professors are still paying off student loan debt.) In five more years, they will go through a similar process to become a full professor and are then granted another raise. It can take an academic sixteen or more years from the start of graduate school to become a full professor. Full professors are then subject to varying levels of constant performance reviews and student evaluations through their entire career. That’s the reality.
It’s one of the most rigorous employee review processes in the public or private sector, and the vast majority of professors—though the process can produce a great deal of anxiety—accept that such an intensive review is ultimately a vital component of higher education. They are proud to be part of such a demanding review system.
Abolishing tenure would end this rigorous review process and politicized the hiring and firing process. Professors would be afraid to express unpopular ideas in the classroom in fear of losing their jobs. Our state universities would then become dumb-downed institutions operated on autocratic principles dictated by ever-changing political realities.
The next session of the Oklahoma Legislature begins Feb. 6.