Updated: Nov 9
by Gaines West, Attorney-at-Law, West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry
Once in a while I get to see trends in Higher Education Law. One of those trends relates to tenure decisions - in both granting tenure when you are on tenure track, and possibly losing tenure in a post tenure review. First, let’s agree that tenure at public colleges and universities is (in some important ways) different than tenure in private institutions. Tenure in public colleges is protected by law not to be denied, or taken away, without some sort of due process hearing. Tenure protections for private universities, on the other hand, are all about the contract you sign with your employer. Those differences can be stark, particularly as it concerns the private college wanting to give by contract certain protections when making tenure decisions. But, back to the trends I see emerging - and these trends apply pretty equally in both public and private colleges.
First, we all know the economic outlook for our country in the near term looks pretty dim. Inflation has been soaring, and costs everywhere seem to double and triple without an end in sight. This leads most governing boards in higher education (both public and private) trimming their budgets (strangely it never seems that the football budget gets trimmed!). On the public side, our Texas Legislature is about to meet in the new year and dire budgeting restraints will likely be the “sauce” that gets “served” to higher education in Texas. This seems to happen on a cycle - and the cycle seems poised to once again dish out this bad news. But, likewise, the governing boards of private colleges feel the pinch too and will ask for new budget projections including cuts in every department on campus for the next two-year cycle (at least). Mix in that craziness of new attacks on tenure altogether - and viola - you have a new trend! And here it is (you heard it first here): boards will soon be issuing edicts to stop granting tenure so readily, and also to get rid of those high dollar older profs who are killing our budgets! Wow! How easy is it for governing boards in both the public and private sectors to agree on a cure that ails them? Unfortunately, a bit too easy!
What does this mean? It means making tenure is getting harder, and keeping it is going to be even harder still (at least for a while)! It seems that politicians of every “stripe” have weighed in recently about tenure. What it means and doesn’t mean to have tenure, and that it is either boom or bane of all existence. Yes, politicians can get a little over charged about things like tenure.
What can you do about this trend? Knowing that a problem exists is the first step towards solving it. So, the first step is not to wait until you are denied tenure, or you are called on the carpet at a post tenure review hearing. Start informing your governing boards about why tenure is vital to maintaining the cutting-edge excellence your college has attained! My suggestion is to COMMUNICATE! Get up and out from behind your keyboard, and out of your classroom and mobilize to EDUCATE those who need it most - your governing board. Assuming they know why tenure is important to your campus is simply a misplaced trust. Utilize your faculty senate, your Provost and Deans to carry the message, because the other trend I have seen happening is that everyone is upset about how tenure is changing, but no one is doing anything to turn the tide.
Tenure is a valuable asset and one that should not be lost. It is richly woven into the fabric of higher education. Try to make it your New Year’s resolution to convince just one member of your governing board to understand and recognize why tenure is a treasure - why it is important and vital to the very growth to preeminence we all want to see at YOUR COLLEGE! Don’t vegetate - communicate - because tenure really does hang precariously in the balance!”
“The information in this column is intended to provide a general understanding of the law, not as legal advice. Readers with legal problems, including those whose questions may be addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.”