Tenure ban bill returns, but research schools would be exempt
A Provo lawmaker who believes the tenure system has outlived its usefulness in higher education is pushing new legislation to ban lifetime employment protection for college professors.
If HB322 becomes law, Utah would become the first state to ban an institution that has been a part of campus life for at least 70 years. Higher education officials plan to fight the proposal, arguing that it would render the Beehive State "an academic pariah."
Tenure "is not about protecting faculty, it's about quality," said Brad Cook, provost of Southern Utah University, the small Cedar City school that relies heavily on tenured scholars.
But Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo, who unsuccessfully sponsored a similar bill last year, said then that tenure makes it hard for institutions to shed incompetent or lazy professors, without doing much to promote academic freedom.
"We are an at-will state. What's the matter with being evaluated every year like everyone else? I've yet to hear a satisfactory answer," Herrod said Friday after reintroducing the measure. "There's nothing the matter with leading out on this. [The private Brigham Young University] has done away with tenure, and they seem to be doing just fine."
HB322 would bar six of Utah's eight public colleges and universities from offering tenure to new hires. In response to the vocal resistance that killed the proposal in committee last session, Herrod's new measure exempts Utah State University and the University of Utah, which need tenure to compete nationally for research teams. That doesn't satisfy his critics.
"We don't think that improves the bill. Utah's national reputation will be damaged in a significant way," said David Buhler, associate commissioner of higher education. By making distinctions between schools with and without tenure, such a law would give second-class status to some schools. And the bill would increase schools' hiring costs and undermine educational quality, top academic officials say.
"It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what tenure is and is not. Well under half of Utah professors are tenured or on tenure track," Buhler said. "By the time someone has earned it they have proved themselves to be a top performing faculty member. It's used to weed out people who aren't working out."
Tenure, which does have critics within academia, was first implemented as a way to protect faculty members' ability to speak openly and espouse unpopular ideas without fear of reprisal from administrators and legislators.
But tenure is difficult to achieve, and Utah schools sometimes do fire tenured faculty. Assistant professors undergo a six-year review process before reaching the promised land and only after passing muster in the classroom, scholarly output and public service.
Prompted by a policy adopted by the state Board of Regents late last year, schools have beefed up post-tenure review. Every five years, tenured faculty undergo a rigorous evaluation and are placed on corrective action if they don't measure up. Some resign if they aren't going to cut it, Buhler said.
"That's a step in the right direction," Herrod responded, adding it doesn't go far enough. "You lose your competitive edge. To only have to worry about it every five years, people can slack off for two or three years then ramp it up."
Should Herrod's bill become law, it would deal a huge blow to SUU, where at least 85 percent of course sections are taught by tenure-track instructors. In the past few years, SUU has hired 38 faculty, many of whom came from out of state because they were offered tenure, according to Cook, a tenured history professor who was president of a women's college in the Middle East before joining SUU a few years ago.
"We all recruit nationally," he said. "We may be relegating the state to second- or third-tier status for higher education. You won't be able to attract the best and brightest faculty."