Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Late last week, Texas lawmakers advanced Senate Bill 18. It reads in part that public colleges and universities in Texas, "may not grant an employee of the institution tenure or any type of permanent employment status". Now, SB 18 is part of a slate of legislative actions aimed at fundamentally restructuring the Lone Star State's system of higher education.
Senate Bills 16 and 17 legislate restriction on faculty's speech in the classroom, eliminate funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and establishes sanctions for faculty members who violate these laws. The American Association of University Professors has criticized SB 16, 17, and 18 saying that "taken together these bills and the efforts to pass them would have a pervasive chilling effect on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on college and university campuses". Here with us is Sergio Martinez-Beltran, a reporter with the Texas Newsroom. Sergio, welcome to The Takeaway.
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: Hi, thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Professor Karma Chávez, who is professor and department chair of Mexican American and Latino Studies at UT Austin. Karma, welcome to The Takeaway.
Karma R. Chávez: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Chávez, I want to begin with you, just to get it out there. What is tenure at the higher ed level so that folks can understand it?
Karma R. Chávez: This is such a good question because I've learned in the last few weeks that a lot of people really have no idea what tenure actually means. Tenure is a contract. It's a long-term contract designed to protect academic freedom. It's an employment guarantee that gives job security in lieu of other kinds of compensation, typically financial compensation that might otherwise be given in the industry.
Tenure is not exactly a job for life, but it does indicate that you have a lot more job security than you might in other jobs that you can only be fired for just cause or for financial emergency. It's really meant to ensure that you can do the research and teaching that is relevant in your area of study without fear of being fired or targeted for your points of view.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think your point is so well taken that so many don't even necessarily know what tenure is or what the process is to earn tenure. Sergio, I guess I'm wondering, why is this a top agenda item for Texas lawmakers, given that it hardly seems like people went to the polls thinking what we've got to do is untenure faculty?
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: This proposal is the latest attempt by leadership in the Texas Senate to really strong-arm faculty they claim hide behind "academic freedom" in order to inappropriately express their ideologies. The way it started in Texas, I think it's interesting. It's what seems a case of revenge from the lieutenant governor here, Republican Dan Patrick. Last year's members of the faculty council at the University of Texas at Austin overwhelmingly voted to reject efforts by the Texas legislature to restrict what they could teach, particularly critical race theory.
This happened after the legislature passed a bill that banned the teaching of critical race theory in K through 12. After the faculty voted, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took it as the faculty challenging the legislature, and then he vowed to go after tenure, and that's where we are today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, it seems important, Professor Chávez, this is connected with these other bills around DEI and other forms of academic freedom in part because so frequently when we talk about academic freedom or think about it within the academy, it's primarily around our role as researchers, the kinds of questions that we can ask and less around what happens in the classroom in part because the development of syllabi and the broad inquiry in the classroom is presumed to be what folks do with and without tenure. That is foundational to being in higher ed.
Karma R. Chávez: Yes, this is such a sticky kind of question because really academic freedom definitionally is about protecting freedom in research and publication as well as in teaching. If you look historically, it's typically in the classroom where academic freedom is most threatened at least in the 20th and the 21st century in the United States and so it's because a student reports a faculty member for saying something unpopular, that kind of thing. On the one hand, teaching is still this important site of academic freedom.
Then we start to talk about DEI, which of course is related to our research. It's related to our teaching and it's related to the different kinds of service we do around the university. It's also a matter of academic freedom, I would argue, because what DEI programs are designed to do, as my friend Brian Evans always says here, they give you a big old Texas howdy. They're meant to say, "You're welcome here, come on in. We want to include you," and so DEI creates inclusive and hospitable environments for learning, which in my view is essential for academic freedom to exist for faculty and for students.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sergio, there's a Democratic state senator, César Blanco, who actually voted alongside Republicans on SB 18 claiming that removing tenure could make the faculty more diverse.
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: That's right. Senator César Blanco was the only Democrat to vote for this bill. His perspective on this issue is that higher education institutions, he claims, have a shameful track record in providing equal opportunities. He says that if the state moves to a space where there's no DEI he cannot trust that universities will do any better by minorities, so he decided to vote in favor of this ban on tenure. He says that, again, this will definitely benefit minorities who have not been able to achieve the level of tenure or the tenure appointment as to white counterparts
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's an interesting point. So for him, the removal of tenure is adjacent to also this removal of DEI because of how it would institutionalize a less diverse faculty core?
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: That's exactly how he's seeing it. Again, these two votes of the SB 18 and SB 17, which is the anti-DEI bill, they happen back to back pretty much, so he's seeing it as both of them are probably going to be signed at the same time, so we might as well ban tenure so minority professors have a better chance at succeeding in the academic world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, let's take a very quick pause right here. I'm going to come back on precisely this point. We're talking about remaking higher ed in Texas. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still with Sergio Martinez-Beltran, reporter at the Texas Newsroom and Professor Karma Chávez, professor and department chair of Mexican American and Latino/Latina Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. We're talking about three Senate bills out of the Texas State Legislature that could reshape higher ed in the state.
Professor Chávez, I want to come to you where Sergio left us off, this question of the connection between DEI and the faculty experience. I guess I'm wondering, for me, DEI feels like what's happening on the student services side, maybe even on the hiring, the contracting side, but I wouldn't describe, for example, a department of Mexican American Studies as DEI work any more than I would like the Department of Chemistry or Biology. Is it likely that SB 17 would also affect intellectual, academic, scholarly pursuits that happen to be about non-white peoples?
Karma R. Chávez: A couple of things. One, I would say part of what they're targeting is, in fact, hiring. They think that diversity statements and hiring are a "loyalty oath" is the language we've been hearing. What a diversity statement is typically in hiring is it's a statement that will accompany an application. Often, it's not required or it's supplementary, but what it usually does is it describes the ways that you create inclusive environments on your research teams, or create inclusive classrooms, or have supported diverse students, where diverse can mean all sorts of things.
That's one of the things that's being targeted. The other thing is that when it comes to applying for federal grants, for example, there's a huge DEI component in those grants. Organizations like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy Office of Science, which provide grants for universities, they all require you to say things like, "This is how our team is inclusive," or "This is how we're going to be supporting diverse communities with this research." You also have to, in these grants, often say how the institution will implement what the grant is funding for, say, three to five years.
It's not just my department where the impact is going to be potentially with things like programming that's designed for, say, Mexican American or Latino students, but it's also in the STEM fields where they actually have to show a commitment to DEI in the grants which fund-- I think right now grants fund something like 22% of the UT Austin budget, for example. This is a huge amount. In fact, that's more than double what the state of Texas pays for UT Austin.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Helpful in terms of thinking about that. Sergio, how likely are these bills to become law in the state?
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: They are almost guaranteed to pass in the Texas Legislature, Melissa. The reality is that the Senate Republicans have been truly pushing for a lot of these bills that some might call culture war issues. I call them a lot of anti-bills. We've heard about anti-DEI, anti-tenure bills, and of course, a lot of anti-LGBTQ bills. They are pushing them very quickly out of the Senate Chamber. Now they are up for the consideration of the Texas House.
It's a bigger body, but I do expect them to pass with a similar support in that Chamber. We've seen with some of these controversial bills that some Democrats have actually voted with Republicans to pass some of these bills, so I would not be surprised if some House Democrats would also vote for them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Karma Chávez is professor and department chair of Mexican American and Latino/Latina Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Sergio Martinez-Beltran is a reporter at the Texas Newsroom. Sergio, Dr. Chávez, thanks so much for joining us today.
Karma R. Chávez: Thank you.
Sergio Martinez-Beltran: Thank you, Melissa.
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