Late bill change would weaken tenure at Florida universities, faculty say

An amendment tacked to a larger bill would allow reviews every five years for tenured professors.
Students walk near the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida campus in Tampa on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. A measure pending in the Florida Senate would require tenured university professors to undergo reviews every five years.
Students walk near the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida campus in Tampa on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. A measure pending in the Florida Senate would require tenured university professors to undergo reviews every five years. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published March 7, 2022

Tenured faculty at Florida’s 12 public universities may have to undergo performance reviews every five years under a Senate proposal gaining momentum in the final days of the state’s legislative session.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, unveiled the proposal on Friday night as a broader postsecondary education bill was nearing final passage in the Senate.

Under the proposal, the Board of Governors may establish a requirement for each tenured faculty member at a state university to undergo a “comprehensive post-tenure review” every five years. The review would need to address faculty members’ accomplishments; their assigned duties in research, teaching and services; their evaluations and ratings; and their compensation. It could also include “consequences for underperformance.”

Diaz said the reviews would “provide an opportunity to examine, recognize and enhance” the performance of tenured faculty members. They are “not a reconsideration of tenure, but rather a constructive five-year,” review.

However, tenured faculty, who already participate in annual reviews, said they fear this is the latest attempt to corrode academic freedom following a series of bills targeting universities and a controversy at the University of Florida that gained national attention.

The Senate bill needs to be considered and approved by the Florida House before it can head to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis. State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, told the Herald/Times she supports the provisions for tenured faculty, noting that it is an option, not a requirement, for the Board of Governors to adopt.

A spokesperson said the board had no comment on the legislation.

The last-minute amendment was tacked onto a bill targeting accreditation agencies that already has raised concerns.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said similar legislation has surfaced across the country.

“The legislators submitting the amendment are basically announcing to the academic community that they don’t care about academic freedoms,” Mulvey said. “They’re dismantling the protections for academic freedom.… Tenure is what protects academic freedom. If you remove tenure — or in Florida, the due process that tenure requires — you’re leaving academic freedom completely unprotected.”

The bill, she said, could lead faculty to take fewer risks with what they research or teach, fearing that they could be dismissed if they displease the authority conducting the review. Currently, each university in Florida has policies for review of tenured faculty that include the input of other faculty with expertise in their fields.

Last fall, a similar draft proposal believed to be written by a university provost swirled among faculty members who strongly condemned it for the chilling effect it could have. The state Council of Provosts told the Board of Governors they were discussing how to strengthen post-tenure review, but many faculty breathed a sigh of relief thinking the issue had disappeared, at least for this legislative session.

Any attempt to change tenure reviews coming from that level, however, would need to be negotiated with each school’s faculty union, said Matthew Lata, president of Florida State University’s faculty union. The law, however, must be followed.

Lata said the lack of specificity about what the Board of Governors can ask is concerning and that each university has different priorities. He said it has faculty wondering if it means they can be dismissed if they are not towing the line politically.

“The concern is that the powers that be in the state might not like the way (controversial topics) are being discussed,” he said. “The door is being left open for abuse.”

“At the final hour of the session, and without any public comment, this amendment will set our universities back decades in our retention and hiring efforts,” Candi Churchill, executive director of United Faculty of Florida, said in a statement. “This is another way for politicians and upper administrators to get rid of viewpoints and ideas they might not like. Tenure is not a ‘job for life,’ but it does require due process and actual evidence if someone must be disciplined or terminated.”

Meera Sitharam, a member of UF’s faculty union chapter, said she was concerned about the way the amendment appeared to be fast-tracked. The bill is opposed by faculty who see it as an attack on the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accreditation body that last year launched investigations at UF and FSU over concerns the schools were being unduly influenced by state officials.

Sitharam said she doesn’t understand the rationale of the amendment when faculty already have rigorous post-tenure evaluation procedures.

“It rips the decisions away and leaves things in the hands of people who are further away from the expertise of faculty and closer and closer to the prevailing political order,” she said.

Sitharam wondered how bills like this would impact UF’s presidential search. The school is one of four Florida universities looking for new presidents.

“Do you think anyone qualified will apply given the well-publicized state of affairs in Florida?” she asked. “Can you think who such a president might be? It’s clearing the way for a certain type of administrator.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he asked Diaz, the amendment’s sponsor, if he had spoken to any faculty organizations about the issue. Diaz had not, according to Brandes.

Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida and a Florida Atlantic University professor, said the union is “100 percent against” the amendment and the bill.

“We see it as part of a larger attempt to control speech on our university campuses,” he said. “We believe free speech means free speech for everyone, not just those who agree with the governor.”

Arthur Shapiro, president of USF’s faculty union, said the state adopted a similar proposal several years ago but it was dropped after a year because it created too much additional work for universities.

This appears to be a resuscitation of that bill, he said, and part of a larger attack on higher education and the need for a four-year degree.

“It’s not one of these things where people don’t work,” Shapiro said. “People work quite hard. Tenure protects people from politics and being picked on unnecessarily.”