By Steven Monacelli
In recent months, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has signaled his increasing focus on education policy with the announcement of a proposal targeting professor tenure and the recent restructuring of committees in the Texas Senate that oversee education. This comes amid a push across the state at all levels of government to turn education into the key culture war issue ahead of the coming elections.
Patrick oversees the Texas Senate and effectively drives the state’s legislative agenda. In early February, Patrick announced his intention to pursue legislation that would strip the tenure of professors teaching Critical Race Theory at the university level, extending the critique beyond the argument that it is not an appropriate curriculum for K-12 students. This came shortly after the faculty council at the University of Texas approved a measure reaffirming instructors’ right to teach about Critical Race Theory and racial injustice in the classroom.
Then in March, Patrick consolidated the oversight of higher education and K-12 policy under a new committee structure that relegates higher education to a subcommittee. He framed the decision as an effort to streamline education policy in the state. Various education groups and advocates fear these are attempts to suppress academic freedom.
“This is an attempt to have government control of scholarship and teaching,” Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP, told the Texas Tribune. “That is a complete disaster. I’ve never seen anything this bad.”
Despite being a college and graduate level curriculum, Critical Race Theory has become a sort of catch-all term for teachings and books that address injustice related to race and gender, particularly in the K-12 environment where it is not directly taught. But that’s not enough for Patrick, who is now seeking to score political points by threatening what education experts say is one of the core guarantors of academic freedom — the faculty tenure system.
“This kind of attack is precisely why we have faculty tenure,” said Michael Harris, a professor at Southern Methodist University studying higher education, in an interview with the Texas Tribune. “The political winds are going to blow at different times, and we want faculty to follow the best data and theory to try to understand what’s happening in our world.”
For educators, those political winds are blowing perhaps stronger than ever. A stunning 66% of Texas teachers are considering leaving their jobs, according to a survey released in February by teachers union Texas AFT, indicating that many in the profession are tired of being underfunded political punching bags.
In addition to stripping tenure for teaching Critical Race Theory, Patrick has proposed making tenure review an annual process instead of every six years, and he says he’s got the support of key members of his party to do it. The Texas Faculty Association criticized the idea and argued it will undermine the future of education in the state.
“The lieutenant governor’s job is to give our public institutions of education the support they need for student success, and that means encouraging professors and students to discuss theories and issues that some people may find uncomfortable,” said TFA spokesperson Pat Heintzelman in a statement to the press. “Patrick, instead, seems intent on ignoring the First Amendment rights of faculty members and their students.”
Indeed, Patrick appears to be upping the ante in direct response to the criticism he’s received from the faculty at the University of Texas.“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote on Twitter. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”
Patrick’s remarks have drawn criticism. Education experts and administrators across Texas have widely noted CRT is rarely if ever taught in K-12. And UT-Austin leaders have described The Liberty Institute at UT in more politically neutral terms, despite growing concern from some faculty and lawmakers that it will operate outside of typical university protocol and serve an explicitly ideological purpose.
Ending tenure would fundamentally change the way Texas universities hire professors, teach students, and conduct research. It’s an ideologically motivated risk that some fear will risk our ability to attract top-tier talent. And on a long enough timeline, some believe it could put much more at risk than the job stability of professors.
“Our public universities are the keystone of Texas’ economic prowess,” said state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, during a February press conference. “As Republicans like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick make it their mission to undermine public trust in our education system, they will chase away the best and brightest students and educators our state needs to remain great.”