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Proposal would weaken protections for tenured faculty at Florida universities

A document making the rounds on state campuses hits a nerve at a sensitive time. Professors fear a blow to academic freedom.
Students cross the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, one of several state schools where faculty have seen a proposal to weaken protections for tenured professors.
Students cross the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, one of several state schools where faculty have seen a proposal to weaken protections for tenured professors. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 4, 2021
Updated Nov. 5, 2021

Faculty members at several public universities in Florida are expressing concern about a proposal that would weaken employment protections for tenured professors.

The draft document, said to be written by a university provost, proposes rules that would make it easier for veteran faculty members to be dismissed. It has circulated among faculty at the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida.

Some faculty leaders contend the proposal sends a chilling message at a time when Florida’s commitment to academic freedom is under question. It comes amid revelations that University of Florida faculty members recently have been barred from serving as paid expert witnesses in lawsuits that challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature on questions like voting rights and masks in schools.

Similar to a recent change in Georgia, the proposal would require tenured faculty to undergo a review every five years to “determine whether a faculty member is meeting the responsibilities and expectations” and “refocus academic and professional efforts, when appropriate.”

A department chair and dean would review a dossier and make recommendations, but a university provost would have the final say over what happens to professors who don’t meet expectations, including the ability to take “any disciplinary actions that are available under university policies and procedures,” the document states.

Kenneth Furton, the provost at Florida International University, made an apparent reference to the proposal on Thursday. In his role as chairperson of the State University System’s Council of Provosts, he said at a Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton that the provosts had been discussing ways to “strengthen our tenure review processes.”

Faculty leaders, meanwhile, described tenure as a pillar of higher education that is closely tied to academic freedom. Weakening it, they said, would steer talented faculty away from the state and endanger the steady boost in rankings that Florida universities have seen in recent years.

Meera Sitharam
Meera Sitharam [ University of Florida ]

“I could be an extremely high-performing employee, but if I say or do something that displeases the powers that be, if I didn’t have academic freedom, I could be let go,” said Meera Sitharam, vice president of the United Faculty of Florida chapter at UF.

“That is core to free inquiry, which is the mission of the university,” she said. “There has to be a basic security which makes (the job) immune from attacks because of what I say ... Tenure is a privilege precisely because you have the responsibility to speak up.”

University of Florida provost Joe Glover and USF provost Ralph Wilcox could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The proposal was aired recently in USF’s faculty union newsletter, which said: “It is not clear what is up — the possibilities seem to range from anti-intellectual grandstanding to Byzantine cunning.”

Arthur Shapiro, president of USF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter, said he’s trying to figure out the motivation for the change.

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Arthur Shapiro
Arthur Shapiro [ University of South Florida ]

“Is it hostility toward universities?” he asked. “Is it something they perceive mistakenly that everyone’s a liberal?”

He added: “Tenure protects the individual. You can get someone who says, ‘Well I don’t like what you wrote’ and fire you ... It protects the institution too.”

Some faculty leaders speculated that Florida’s higher education leaders were advancing the proposal to get ahead of lawmakers who might be considering even stronger restrictions in the upcoming legislative session.

The concept of tenure has been referenced as early as 1915 by the American Association of University Professors, defined as employment that could only be terminated for “adequate cause, except in the case of retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.”

Tenure is often misunderstood by those outside of higher education, said Tim Boaz, president of the Faculty Senate at USF. The idea that faculty become less productive after tenure is misguided, he said. Programs and departments are frequently reviewed, and all faculty have annual evaluations. Those who lag in productivity are often resented by their colleagues, he said.

“If the public thinks we’re sitting on our a--es, who is bringing in these research dollars?” said Sitharam, the professor at UF, which attracted $861 million in grants and research money last year.

Tenure, Boaz argued, is what draws people to join academia, taking lower salaries than in industry and at a much slower rate of increase than the market rate.

“What could happen is we become noncompetitive for new faculty talent,” he said. “If we didn’t have tenure, none of the talented people would apply if applicants had the sense that the provost could fire them for no reason.”

As for schools who aspire to climb in rankings and, in USF’s case, join prestigious institutions like the Association of American Universities, “we could kiss those goodbye,” Boaz said.

Asked by Wilcox, the USF provost, to review the proposal, the Faculty Senate’s executive committee reacted strongly.

“What is the problem that is being solved?” the committee asked in a written response.

“If legislators think that tenure itself is a bad idea, then offering to spend a lot of time, effort and money doing more evaluation of all tenured faculty seems unlikely to change that view. A more appropriate or effective action would be to make a stronger case for the value of tenure, especially in terms of reduced salary costs and maintaining our competitiveness in the marketplace for academic talent, especially for the research intensive universities.”

The committee said university leaders should figure out a way to deal with those who lag in productivity instead of making all faculty members go through the process.

Additionally, they said, giving the provost complete discretion over dismissing someone without peer review “is tantamount to eliminating tenure.”

“Tenure is about protecting faculty from arbitrary or unjustifiable dismissal,” they wrote. “This proposal, as written, effectively eliminates such protection ... There must be a check on this, and the faculty member must have some reasonable recourse.”

Any change in tenure and promotion policies from university administrators would have to be handled through a collective bargaining unit. At UF, that means no change could take place until at least 2024.

David Bloom, president of UF’s Faculty Senate, said he’s heard talk of changes but is confident university leaders understand the importance of tenure to their national stature.

Robert Cassanello, president of the faculty union at the University of Central Florida, said he saw a version of the proposal but does not believe UCF is considering implementing a similar policy.

Robert Cassanello
Robert Cassanello [ University of Central Florida ]

Still, he said he fears that universities are facing a governance crisis and an abuse on the part of politicians using tactics like unspoken threats and budget cuts to achieve their ends.

“What are (university leaders) going to be willing to do to please the Legislature?” Cassanello said. “At what point will they say no? I don’t think that point exists.”

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