Statement on Texas Proposals to Eliminate Tenure
AFA statement says the proposals “strike at the very heart of the academic enterprise”
PRINCETON, NJ – The following statement is attributable to the Academic Freedom Alliance:
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced on February 18 that “one of my priorities will be eliminating tenure at all public universities in Texas. To address already-tenured professors, we will change tenure reviews from every 6 years to annually. Additionally, we will define teaching Critical Race Theory in statute as a cause for a tenured professor to be dismissed.” This announcement comes in response to a resolution passed by the Faculty Council of the University of Texas defending the academic freedom of university faculty to teach controversial subjects, including critical race theory.
Tenure protections for university faculty were adopted throughout American higher education in the twentieth century precisely in order to protect faculty from the efforts of politicians, donors, university administrators, and other faculty to suppress ideas that they do not like. The lieutenant governor’s proposals strike at the very heart of the academic enterprise by prohibiting the teaching of certain ideas, thus immunizing contrary ideas from intellectual challenge. This, in effect, establishes campus orthodoxies and forbids the expression of dissent. Few things are more toxic to intellectual life.
To fulfill their missions, universities must be places where controversial ideas can be freely debated and where ideas are tested and supported through the consideration of evidence, argument, and analysis and not by subjecting them to popularity contests at the polls, in legislatures, or anywhere else. A free society does not empower politicians—or anyone—to censor ideas they do not like and silence scholars of whom they disapprove.
Over a half century ago, the United States Supreme Court rejected the attempt of elected officials to interrogate those who teach in a public university classroom and punish those who taught unpopular ideas. In the ensuing years judges have frequently repeated the words of the Court from that landmark case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire in the development of our First Amendment jurisprudence:
“The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”
Tenure provides valuable practical protection for that freedom of critical inquiry. Principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are empty platitudes if they cannot be effectively secured. If professors can be fired for teaching ideas of which the legislature disapproves, then state universities will cease to be engines of intellectual discovery and progress. If professors can be dismissed for teaching ideas that a majority of the Texas legislature dislikes today, then they can likewise be dismissed for teaching a completely different set of ideas that a different legislative majority in the future or in a state with a different political or ideological coloration finds objectionable. True intellectual diversity requires the freedom to think, teach and write without the threat of political reprisals against those who voice dissenting opinions. Academic excellence is impossible where politicians, administrators, other faculty, or anyone else place limits on what ideas can be discussed in a college classroom.
The Academic Freedom Alliance is a diverse alliance of college and university faculty members who are dedicated to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech. These principles are central to the mission of our institutions of higher education for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The AFA is committed to defending universal principles of academic freedom and will come to the assistance of professors regardless of their individual views. As always, the AFA is not concerned with the substance or merits of a professor’s ideas but with the principle that universities should be places that tolerate controversial ideas and allow free inquiry and debate, not public opinion or political pressure, to separate error from truth.