From the President: Tenure and Democracy under Threat

By Irene Mulvey

Protecting academic freedom is a never-ending enterprise. From its very beginning in 1915, the AAUP has recognized the essentiality as well as the fragility of academic freedom in our institutions of higher education. In fact, we can measure our Association’s effectiveness over the years by reviewing how well we have managed to protect academic freedom from the various attacks to which it has been subjected.

Since about 2015, coincident with the rise of Trumpism, threats to academic freedom, often originating in statehouses and governors’ offices and typically accompanied by unsubstantiated claims of student “indoctrination,” have been rampant. The cynicism so transparently underlying these attacks must not distract us from how very dangerous they are. Some of the most serious recent attacks have targeted tenure, the institution designed to safeguard academic freedom.

In October 2021, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) unilaterally made changes to the system’s post-tenure review policy that effectively eliminated the academic due process that protects academic freedom for tenured faculty. The AAUP’s report on USG detailed how the new policy eviscerates tenure in Georgia’s public colleges and universities. The nineteen members of the USG board, primarily businesspeople, had all been appointed by Republican governors.

In November 2021, a group of twenty-three Republicans in South Carolina’s General Assembly introduced legislation that would have effectively ended tenure in public institutions of higher education in the state. The pushback against the proposed law, the Canceling Professor Tenure Act, was immediate and fierce. The unserious nature of the endeavor was illustrated clearly by the fact that the bill’s chief sponsor did not see any need to consult with the University of South Carolina system administration or faculty groups before filing the bill. Ultimately, a study of tenure by the state’s commission on higher education was proposed instead, ending this threat for now.

In early 2022, following standard governance procedures, faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin passed a resolution affirming their right to academic freedom in the classroom. The resolution was detailed, thoroughly footnoted, and uncontroversial. The faculty passed it in response to “educational gag orders” introduced in other states limiting or prohibiting teaching about race, racism, gender, and other topics deemed “divisive.” Seizing an opportunity to foment grievances, Texas’s lieutenant governor immediately called a performative press conference at which he challenged the nonbinding resolution and announced his plan to end tenure in the state. In other words, in response to the faculty’s assertion of the need for academic freedom, the lieutenant governor demanded the removal of tenure and the requisite protections of academic due process.

More examples of legislation designed to erode or eliminate tenure can be found in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Let’s be clear. None of these attacks are really about tenure, and no one launching them has made any kind of principled argument about academic freedom. There are no fundamental values underlying any of the proposed policies or legislation. There is no intellectual underpinning in the MAGA right wing.

While we are still reeling from over one million deaths in the United States caused by COVID-19 and from a violent insurrection that came perilously close to overthrowing our democratically elected government—and despite the real problems that need to be addressed, including inadequate health care and the ongoing pandemic, poverty, homelessness and hunger, racial justice and gender equity issues, and climate change—these elected leaders, whose job is to draft new laws or change existing laws for the betterment of the people, have only one goal, and that is to retain power. Without any fundamental values to guide their policy initiatives, they turn to the only thing that’s left: encouraging skirmishes in a phony culture war and promoting madhouse conspiracy theories. The cynicism is breathtaking, but the danger is real.

Duplicitous elected leaders who fuel grievances can drive people to violence and incite mobs. That is a real and present danger. Whether by attacking tenure, by imposing limits on what can be taught and learned, or by restricting the books available in a public library, these politicians are undermining democracy, a less visible but no less threatening danger. The free exchange of ideas is a core element of a healthy democracy. The freedom to teach and undertake scholarly work is essential to higher education. When public education is suspect and educators are demonized, it is a dark day for democracy. As educators and activists, we must fight back against these attacks with all that we have.