Tenure at the state’s public universities and community colleges is under fire in the General Assembly.
House Bill 228 would require university and community college boards “to approve a performance and productivity evaluation process for all faculty members by January 1, 2025.”
The measure, sponsored by Rep. James Tipton (R-Taylorsville), the Education Committee chair, would also “require faculty evaluations be completed at least once every four years; permit removal of faculty for failure to meet performance and productivity requirements, regardless of status; permit a board to delegate appointment and removal of faculty to the college or university president” and “require that each board of regents of the six state comprehensive universities appoint a university president.”
HB 228 was introduced in the House on Jan. 10 and was assigned to the Education Committee on Jan. 17.
HB 228 reflects a nationwide campaign by conservative groups and organizations against what they claim is a liberal bias in higher education reflected in faculty and programs. Of late, they are focusing on programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI for short. Republican lawmakers have introduced anti-DEI bills in the House and Senate. (See this Kentucky Lantern story by McKenna Horsley.)
“What we are seeing is a multi-pronged attack on diversity, on freedom of thought,” said Dr. Brian Clardy, a history professor at Murray State University and a member of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky. Affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, UCWK “is the wall-to-wall campus and public healthcare employees union for the Commonwealth of Kentucky representing faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate workers.”
Clardy added that the anti-tenure and anti-DEI bills “are a direct assault on academic freedom pure and simple.” Throughout history, he said, authoritarians and dictators — far right and far left — have suppressed “free thought, dissent, and reason. When you dumb down a population, you can control it so much easier.” (The AFT and UCW oppose all such legislation that stifles free speech and restricts academic freedom in classrooms.)
Absent tenure, he said, faculty will self-censure themselves in the classroom and in public for fear of being fired.
Clardy also said that conservative claims that tenure guarantees lifetime employment are false. “You can still be fired for cause. Without tenure, you can be fired without cause.”
Dr. Katy Varner of Louisville, executive director of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, agrees with Clardy that tenured faculty can be dismissed for cause.
"Eliminating tenure for higher education faculty in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is a fiscally unsound idea," added Varner, who is a retired faculty member and administrator at Jefferson Community and Technical College. "Lack of tenure will make it almost impossible for colleges and universities to attract and retain excellent educators.
“Lack of tenure will reduce college and universities’ abilities to obtain well-funded grants, as entities who fund these coveted awards look for stability in an institution. Lack of tenure will ensure that Kentucky’s higher education institutions will be rated lower, and fewer students will be attracted to these universities and colleges. Loss of tuition revenue will become the norm.”
She said it’s a myth that getting rid of tenure “is the way to ‘control faculty and make sure they work harder.’ Bad teachers can be fired regardless of tenure. Teachers who make it through the tenure process and demonstrate their abilities and their motivation do not become sloths at work when they obtain tenure.”
Tenure is designed to protect academic freedom and shield professors from arbitrary punishment and dismissal. Explains the AFT’s website: “New faculty members typically undergo a multiyear probationary period during which their teaching and research are evaluated by their colleagues. Those who meet all these requirements successfully may be awarded tenure. Tenure simply means that a college or university can not fire a tenured professor unless it presents compelling evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally, or that the institution is in grave financial distress. Tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee – it is a guarantee of due process that enables tenured professors to do their work without being subject to removal because of shifts in the political winds, institutional favoritism, or for crossing the ‘wrong’ student, trustee, colleague, or supervisor.
“Tenure promotes accountability and quality in higher education. It ensures that the institution’s curriculum, teaching, research and other academic programs will be framed and developed by trained and motivated professionals who possess a deep, lasting commitment to the institution. It gives faculty the independence to speak out about contentious matters, and to challenge the administration on issues of new curriculum and quality without putting their jobs on the line.”
Clardy echoes Varner’s warning that axing tenure will cause many professors who are leaders in their academic disciplines to not seek faculty positions in Kentucky. Also, he said, many professors will leave or retire.
Clardy has been on the MSU faculty for 18 years. “But if tenure is abolished, I’ll start looking at a beeline toward retirement because I won’t bite my tongue.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has spoken out against the anti-DEI campaign. But the GOP enjoys supermajorities in both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly. Under the state constitution, the legislature can override a veto with a simple majority of the House and Senate.
Craig is an AFT Local 1360 and KEA/NEA retiree, a member of the Kentucky Alliance for Retired Americans and an associate member of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky and Kentucky 120 United AFT.