The South Carolina legislature will consider a bill next year that would stop public colleges and universities in that state from awarding tenure to faculty members hired after December 31, 2022.
A group of 23 Republicans have pre-filed H. bill 4522 for the upcoming session of the legislature. Under the provisions of the bill, titled the “Cancelling Professor Tenure Act,” faculty who currently have tenure would not be affected, but new hires would have their employment contracts limited to a term of no longer than five years.
And those new employment contracts would be required to include a provision that allows the institution to dismiss the faculty member prior to the expiration date of the contract if the institution determines he or she violated policies specifically listed as reasons for termination.
Once there are no more currently tenured faculty employed at a public institution, the tenure system at that school would be discontinued.
In addition, the bill mandates that “Beginning with the 2024-2025 School Year, all full-time or tenured college faculty employed at a public institution of higher learning shall teach at least two undergraduate or graduate courses in both the fall and spring semesters of each academic year, except for faculty members employed by departments or schools only offering graduate degrees.”
Also, as a condition of employment, public institutions of higher learning in the state “may require faculty to teach additional courses in the spring, fall, or any other designated academic term.”
And finally, beginning July 31, 2025, and every year thereafter, South Carolina colleges will be required to report the number of full-time faculty, tenured faculty, part-time faculty and graduate assistants they employ to the Commission of Higher Education, which in turn is required to submit an annual report to the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate by September 1 each year.
South Carolina becomes just the latest state to take a run at scrapping or weakening tenure for college professors. Iowa has made something of an annual ritual of it, introducing tenure-ending bills in three of its recent legislative sessions.
And the American Association of University Professors is investigating the University System of Georgia after it altered its tenure policies despite strong faculty objections. The changes include making it possible to fire a tenured faculty member without a dismissal hearing.
Florida lawmakers are also reportedly looking into revising tenure policies at their state universities, a move about which faculty are understandably troubled, particularly given the recent threats against their academic freedom at the University of Florida.
The move against tenure in South Carolina comes at a time when higher education is under increasing GOP scrutiny and criticism. Claiming that there are no guarantees of lifelong employment in other types careers, bill sponsor Bill Taylor, R-Aiken is quoted as saying, “the question is always why professors in higher education are the single exception. In my view, each of us needs to demonstrate their work.” If nothing else, Taylor has proven it’s possible to be cryptic and ungrammatical at the same time.
Of course, the purpose of tenure is tied to the importance of protecting faculty rights to pursue truth, espouse unpopular ideas and challenge the status quo. And given the hot air that politicians have recently been blowing against the academy, guarding faculty from threats and harassment remains essential.
But tenure is also associated with problems. It can occasionally protect ineffective faculty, providing job security to those who no longer deserve it to the detriment of both students and institutions. And it can sometimes impose an intellectual orthodoxy, stifling – rather than safeguarding – academic disagreements.
Many individuals – both inside and outside the academy- recognize that reasonable reforms of tenure are possible. They would involve changes that allow tenure to accomplish the faculty protections that are needed without the abuses that are sometimes encountered.
But what South Carolina lawmakers are proposing is not a reform of tenure. It’s a direct assault on it. As University of South Carolina professor Carol Harrison, who serves as the president for the university’s AAUP chapter, said. “this is not a tenure reform bill. This is a tenure abolition bill.”
It’s become a popular tactic among many on the political right to challenge – and in some cases, threaten – the policies, curriculum, and faculty of public colleges and universities. They typically do so with indifference, if not hostility, to the many contributions those institutions make to the prosperity, health and overall well-being of the people they serve.
Whatever their motives, elected officials in South Carolina, Iowa and other states eager to meddle with their public universities need to understand the potential consequences of their actions. It’s taken decades to build institutions like the University of Iowa and the University of South Carolina or Iowa State University and Clemson into the educational and economic powerhouses each has become. Along with the other public institutions in these states, they deserve better than to be jeopardized by the reckless policies that too many unserious lawmakers seem determined to pursue.