Tenure Under Attack Nationwide

Continued political pressures threaten to erode tenure on public campuses and compromise academic freedom.

December 7, 2021 · Updated on December 8, 2021

Tenure Under Attack Nationwide
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Bloomberg / Contributor / Bloomberg / Getty Images

  • Legislators in South Carolina want to eliminate tenure at public universities.
  • Several other states have initiated similar bills in recent years.
  • Lawmakers claim tenure leads to inefficiencies and faculty indoctrination of students.

In January, legislators in South Carolina will consider a bill to eliminate tenure at the state's public colleges and universities. While this may seem like an extraordinary move, it actually aligns with current and recent plans in several other states nationwide.

What's prompting politicians to put tenure on the chopping block?

Some seek greater budgetary flexibility and organizational efficiencies, both of which, they say, are hampered by tenure. Some wish to weed out dead wood — faculty who've hung around long after their most productive days. And some see eliminating tenure as a way of controlling what's perceived as faculty indoctrination of students around issues such as critical race theory.

Legislators in South Carolina and elsewhere have tenure in the crosshairs, and university faculty are fighting back.

Whatever their motivations, legislators in South Carolina and elsewhere have tenure in the crosshairs, and university faculty are fighting back.

Will 2022 be a watershed moment for tenure and academic freedom? What are the long-term implications for higher education if politicians get their way? Is this just the next step toward the inevitable demise of tenure?

South Carolina Seeks to Eliminate Tenure

In November, a group of 23 Republicans filed House Bill 4522, known ominously as the "Cancelling Professor Tenure Act." It would prohibit public colleges and universities in South Carolina from awarding tenure to faculty members hired after Dec. 31, 2022.

Faculty would instead be offered temporary employment contracts not exceeding five years. Professors who now have tenure would be grandfathered in.

Moreover, the bill requires all full-time faculty and tenured faculty members to teach at least two undergraduate or graduate classes each fall and spring semester, beginning in the 2024-25 academic year. The measure aims to ensure students are taught by faculty and not graduate students.

Republican South Carolina state Rep. Bill Taylor, who introduced the bill, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that "the intention of the legislation is to alter professor tenure, replacing the lifelong guarantee [of] permanent employment with a contractual agreement that is comparable to what other sectors of American life have."

"The question is always why professors in higher education are the single exception," he said in another interview.

Faculty, naturally, don't view it as a mere alteration of the existing system.

“This is not a tenure reform bill, this is a tenure abolition bill.”
Carol Harrison, Professor at the University of South Carolina

"This is not a tenure reform bill," said University of South Carolina professor Carol Harrison. "This is a tenure abolition bill."

Taylor also took issue with the notion that eliminating tenure would erode academic freedom.

"Prove it to me," he said. "Show me how that is going to work. Because those are just simply the talking points."

A second bill, also introduced in November, would require that educators "refrain from judging, stereotyping, or scapegoating others based on personal or group characteristics or political and religious beliefs" and "acknowledge the right of others to express differing opinions."

Essentially, it would ban promoting the idea that certain people, simply because of their race, contribute to the oppression of others.

"What we're talking about here," said Shawn Smolen-Morton, a professor at Francis Marion University and president of the South Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), "is basic censorship."

Georgia and Iowa Colleges Face Similar Challenges

A month earlier, tenure came under attack in neighboring Georgia. The University of Georgia System's board of regents approved changes to the post-tenure review policy, a move critics characterize as a "hobbling of tenure" across the 25-institution system.

Under the new process, faculty who receive an unfavorable post-tenure review and fail to make satisfactory progress can be terminated, even when tenured, without a dismissal hearing.

Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the AAUP's department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, wrote that although Georgia's policy "cannot be said to do away with tenure entirely, it certainly moves in that direction …"

Legislators in Iowa moved dramatically in that direction last January when they introduced House File 49, a bill to ban tenure at the state's public universities.

Iowa state Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican, said abolishing tenure will enable lawmakers to hold professors accountable for violations of free speech on campus.

“I wonder if the assault on free speech by some university professors is not related to the belief that they're Teflon-coated and indestructible. Therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure.”
Steven Holt, Iowa state Representative

"I wonder if the assault on free speech by some university professors is not related to the belief that they're Teflon-coated and indestructible," he told The Gazette of Cedar Rapids. "Therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure."

Holt also noted in an email to The Daily Iowan "the growing number of cases in which professors who know better threaten and intimidate students with differing viewpoints."

His Republican colleague, state Sen. Jim Carlin, agreed. "We don't want [colleges] to be places of indoctrination," he said. "We want our students … to be able to think critically about how things are."

Later that spring, the bill failed to advance in the Iowa House and never made it through committee in the Senate. Tenure in Iowa is safe — for now.

"There still is interest within the Legislature to do something within tenure," Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley told the Des Moines Register. "It just may be a different approach."

Attempts to Eliminate Tenure Are Nothing New

This wasn't the first go-round with tenure in Iowa. Back in 2017, the state Senate introduced a bill to prohibit "the establishment or continuation of a tenure system." It threatened to abolish tenure, even for those who had it.

Similar bills were initiated in 2018 and 2019. None of those passed.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Rick Brattin, a Missouri Republican, proposed eliminating tenure in 2017.

"If you're doing the right thing as a professor and teaching students to the best of your ability, why do you need tenure?" he asked.

Ben Trachtenberg, associate professor of law at the University of Missouri and chair of its faculty council, noted that ending tenure would put Missouri institutions at a competitive disadvantage when recruiting faculty.

"I think an economist would suggest that if there are two jobs that pay the same, and one has much more job security," he said, "that's the one that's going to be more exciting to prospective employees."

His faculty colleague J. Chris Pires, professor of biological sciences, added that eliminating tenure might even cost the institution more in the long run.

"If [a university] wanted to get rid of tenure but remain competitive to recruit faculty," he said, "then they would have to substantially increase salaries."

Two years earlier, legislators in Wisconsin "declared war" on the state's faculty by approving a spending bill that reduced the threshold for eliminating tenured faculty.

The aim was to give university administrators more flexibility when dealing with budget cuts. In 2016, Wisconsin's board of regents adopted a policy that preserved tenure but chipped away at some of the safeguards built into the state's system.

Additional states — including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas — have taken steps in recent years to compromise tenure in their public institutions. Clearly, this qualifies not as a coincidence but as a trend.

Additional states — including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas — have taken steps in recent years to compromise tenure in their public institutions. Clearly, this qualifies not as a coincidence but as a trend.

"These are serious attempts to undermine universities and the role of universities in society," said Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer for academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance at the AAUP. "If they're not directly coordinated, there's a strong current going through all of them."

How Long Can Tenure Survive?

The nationwide push to weaken or eliminate tenure at public universities has gained significant momentum.

Given the shifting political winds, the precarious financial condition of state budgets, and a 50-year trend toward fewer tenured faculty and more adjuncts and non-tenure-track positions, are tenure's days numbered?

Given the shifting political winds, the precarious financial condition of state budgets, and a 50-year trend toward fewer tenured faculty and more adjuncts and non-tenure-track positions, are tenure's days numbered?

And if so, what happens to academic freedom?

That concept — in theory and practice — has increasingly come under attack, with critics claiming non-tenured faculty enjoy the right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Yet the differences between free speech and academic freedom are nuanced and profound, and academic freedom offers benefits beyond what the First Amendment ensures.

Above all, tenure protects academic integrity, notes Thomas L. Harnisch, former director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"What we're really talking about," he said, "is the soul of higher education."

Most signs point to the eventual demise of tenure, at least at public universities. Politicians have grown wary of university finances and budgetary practices, suspicious of what is being taught and how, and convinced that higher education is rife with lazy professors going through the motions while collecting hefty salaries.

Without tenure, legislators have more control.

But, ultimately, what will become of the institutions they govern?