New five-year review threatens legitimacy of tenure in Florida universities

Senate Bill 7044 states regulations that instilled fear in tenured professors about their research topics and promised job security. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Concerns have been growing among faculty due to the recent passing of Senate Bill 7044, which states the Board of Governors can adopt a regulation requiring tenured faculty to undergo a post-tenure review every five years.

Regulations, such as accomplishments, productivity, assigned duties in research, teaching and services can be considered on top of regulations outside of the list provided in the bill.

“If we are required to essentially reapply for tenure every five years, you never had tenure. That’s a renewable five-year contract, not tenure,” Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz said.

Having the extensive review every five years, which is typically the amount of time it takes to get tenure, Boaz feels as though the state is trying to take tenure away with this bill.

It is important to preserve tenure to make academic freedom work, according to professor emeritus Harry Vanden.

“[Tenure is] what encourages and allows a lot of people to have a little bit freer hand in their research, and most of all, not have to be worried that they’ll be sanctioned, have their salary diminished, be reassigned or be fired because of a particular political opinion,” Vanden said.

He also said that tenured professors should not have to worry about discussing certain ideas and subjects due to the political views associated with the topic.

Tenure is about ensuring additional freedoms in a professor’s work to allow them to study ideas that are meaningful to them, according to associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy Kyaien Conner. She said the bill is enforcing a fear of not continuing to pursue these potentially controversial ideas.

The exact review process is not explicitly stated in the bill, according to associate professor of philosophy Richard Manning. Currently, it only lists what will be reviewed, but not how it will be done.

“That document said that provosts would have final say on outcomes and their decisions would be unreviewable, excepting on productural grounds,” Manning said. “What’s actually in the legislation is very much leaner and less directive. But for that reason, it’s also more permissive for the Board of Governors.”

Manning is concerned that the final outcomes of the reviews might be biased because there is no outside review from peers or other administration.

Boaz also worries about the lack of peer review implied, citing that outside analysis would help prevent bias.

“The document indicated that the post tenure review process input from faculty peers was essentially completely at the option of administrators who would be involved in the review, so there was no requirement that there be any peer review,” he said.

There is a lack of due process in the document because of this, according to Boaz. Due to their shared concerns, the Faculty Senate took it upon themselves to write a letter to the provost outlining their worries.

The letter was presented to the group of provosts that discussed the original document. To the Faculty Senate’s understanding, the group forwarded the document to people working in the legislature, according to Boaz.

Nevertheless, the bill was written and went through the House and Senate and passed on March 9.

The vagueness regarding what will be reviewed in the bill contributes to faculty anxiety about the impact of this bill on universities and leaves them wondering about the intention of the bill, according to College of Nursing professor Laura Szalacha said.

“It does not specify if this is establishing whether the person is being productive or whether the person is going into areas of research or activities of which the Senate may disapprove,” she said. “This is a clear violation of freedom of thought, academic freedom.”

While Szalacha is not on the tenure track, she believes the bill will have an impact on everyone at the university, including students, faculty and professors on the tenure and non-tenure track.

The bill instills fear within faculty members that were previously confident in the research they pursued due to the fact it could be viewed as less valuable, according to Conner.

Associate professor at the Department of Sociology S.L. Crawley has specific concerns about the phrasing of the bill, specifically about the word underperformance stated in line 75, where the bill states regulations that will be checked within the review.

“The term ‘underperformance’ seems to suggest that faculty aren’t working fast enough, as though education and knowledge construction run like assembly lines, but scholarship doesn’t work that way,” Crawley said.

This bill, among others, is an attempt to control what is being taught on college campuses, according to Szalacha, running the institutions like a business proposition.

“Education is not just about pouring knowledge into students’ heads and having them espouse certain beliefs,” she said. “It’s about opening their mind to different ideas and challenging them with what they think in order for that person to grow and develop.”

Vanden is concerned that the addition of this new review will make Florida universities less appealing to work at, for incoming and continuing professors.

“Florida would not only diminish the universities, but cause a lot of people to not seek jobs here and cause some to leave and go to more enlightened states or teach in private universities where they can be ensured their tenure,” Vanden said.

Colleagues of Conner from across the U.S. who formerly had an interest in coming to Florida are now unsure because they fear their tenures being rescinded.

“[My colleagues] are now reconsidering that because they are concerned the stability of tenure will be taken away but, more importantly, that the research in the areas that they conduct scholarship may not be valued or seen as valuable by the state or by politics,” Connor said.

Even current faculty of universities in Florida are considering looking for work elsewhere due to their job security being threatened, according to Boaz. This could result in a brain drain of quality professors relocating from the state.

“The ones who can do that are top performers,” he said. “They’re in demand at other universities, those are people we don’t want to lose.”

After passing in the House, the bill, including other details regarding postsecondary education details and updates, is set to take effect July 1.

Faculty aspire to do what is best for their students, and Manning doesn’t believe legislators care more about students than the professors themselves.

“I think the chances that legislators in Tallahassee care more about the students than the faculty do are zero,” Manning said. “The chances that they know what the students need more than the faculty do are also zero. If there were a probability lower than zero, I would assign that.”