Government & Politics

Legislator wants to hand a pink slip to guaranteed job security at Missouri colleges

Legislation proposed by Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, would eliminate the tenure system for the state’s public colleges and universities.
Legislation proposed by Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, would eliminate the tenure system for the state’s public colleges and universities. The Associated Press

Tenure, that time-honored college professor’s privilege affording what some deem lifetime guaranteed employment, is threatened with termination.

A Missouri lawmaker is proposing eliminating tenure for professors at all the state’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities.

Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, says he wants to get rid of what educators have set as the gold standard of achievement for college professors.

Achieving tenure is a long, rigorous effort, and it can be fiercely competitive. It’s a status granted through a peer-review process following a probationary period of up to seven years. During that time, an associate professor must produce myriad published articles on his or her topic of research, and show a history of successful teaching experience. Student and faculty surveys are involved.

Brattin, a military veteran who graduated from Lee’s Summit High School and now owns his family’s Cass County construction company, said scrapping tenure would save public money, give schools more flexibility and put higher education employment more in line with other industries around the state.

And at a time when the cost of higher education continues to climb and universities are hunting for savings, Missouri legislators, he says, have his back on this one.

The Missouri bill would have schools cease tenure-track hiring in 2018, but unlike a similar bill proposed last month in Iowa, it would not pry tenure away from those who already have it.

The bill would also “require public colleges to publish estimated costs of degrees, employment opportunities expected for graduates, average salaries of previous graduates, and a summary of the job market” for that degree.

Faculty are pushing back on the tenure issue, saying such a law would spur a mass exodus from Missouri campuses, with the best professors leading the charge. Stopping tenure, some say, would put the state’s schools at a grave competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting talent to fill their lecture halls and research labs.

No such bill, for example, is pending in Kansas.

“Should this ill-conceived bill become law in Missouri, it will immediately become extremely difficult to attract talented faculty members and to retain good faculty,” said Gary Ebersole, a tenured professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The fallout expected is basic economics, said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri where he chairs the Columbia campus’s Faculty Council on University Policy.

“I think an economist would suggest that if there are two jobs that pay the same, and one has much more job security, that’s the one that’s going to be more exciting to prospective employees,” Trachtenberg said. “The bill is not a good idea.”

Both arguments are ones Brattin said he has heard before. But “tenure, I think, is outdated and needless,” he said. “We have employment discrimination laws, and whistleblower laws to protect people from being removed unjustly.’’

Furthermore, Brattin said, ending tenure could save money, because college administrators would be free to get rid of low-enrollment academic programs and eliminate high-paid professors continuing to teach courses students aren’t interested in. Tenure also means professors can’t be forced to retire.

No other profession — except judges — guarantees employment for life, Brattin said. “The American higher education system is the only place in the world that does this. We need to ensure people are worth the salt they are being paid.”

Tenure became policy at nearly every college and university in the country by the late 1950s and early 1960s, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance for the American Association of University Professors. It was established he said, to protect academic freedom and defend open research and the freedom of open class discussion.

Tenure, Tiede said, allows faculty to pursue truth and knowledge regardless of how controversial the subject matter, without fear of termination or retribution.

And many would argue the growing opposition to tenure has political footing in Republican-majority states.

Missouri is not the only state where legislation threatens to strip tenure from colleges and universities. Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Iowa, this year also proposed a bill that would eliminate the tenure system at public institutions in his state.

Tenure elimination for the most part has been more strongly supported by state conservatives and more widely opposed by Democrats and a growing number of moderate Republicans.

That could bode well for Brattin, as Republicans in Missouri hold a majority in both the state’s Senate and the House.

College and university leaders in Iowa have spoken publicly and written letters to lawmakers opposing the measure.

Tiede said that while he does not believe tenure will be completely eliminated, he does believe it is in crisis. “What we are seeing right now is a full-on assault on a system that has been undermined for some time now,” Tiede said.

The National Education Association agrees that the tenure system is under bombardment. But on its website, the NEA points out the battle to kill tenure may be rooted in misinformation.

NEA officials say the idea that tenure is a lifetime job guarantee is a myth. In reality, tenure presents professors with the right to due process — preventing a college or university from firing a tenured professor without presenting evidence that he or she is incompetent or behaved unprofessionally.

The idea that tenure allows professors to do and say as they please without question is just not true, the NEA says.

“Faculty members remain accountable after achieving tenure,” the teachers group explains on its website. “Tenured faculty at most colleges and universities are evaluated periodically.”

Professors with tenure, “just like anyone else, need to be held accountable for their performance,” the NEA says. “But when a faculty member does the kind of work that’s controversial, or just hard to explain to anyone outside a narrow circle of experts, he or she deserves to be protected from endless self-justification and working in a perpetual state of anxiety.”

Last summer, the State College of Florida scrapped tenure for incoming faculty. Its new policy says new professors will be hired on annual contracts, which the school can decline to renew at any time.

And a new policy at the University of Wisconsin last spring weakened that school’s tenure protections, making it easier for college administrators to lay off tenured faculty for educational or financial reasons.

Tiede said the move cost the school a lot of money because it had to increase pay for many professors to keep them from looking elsewhere for a job.

On the other side is a sentiment that the elimination of tenure might increase turnover and thereby increase opportunities for new, in many cases younger, faculty.

Still, some worry that such a fierce attack on tenure under the current Trump administration is particularly disturbing.

“I have recently seen the Trump administration talking about — and, in some cases, moving to — defund particular forms of research,” said Ebersole. “There is grave concern that research on global warming, for instance, might be cut or totally defunded. The same with environmental-impact studies that some officials see as anti-business measures.”

Ebersole said that he wonders, “without tenure, will faculty in the UMKC or UMSL (University of Missouri-St. Louis) criminology and criminal justice programs be able to conduct studies in the future on racial bias, police brutality, hate crimes, etc.?”

The list of academic disciplines he and other faculty are concerned about “is very long,” Ebersole said.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc