UT Faculty Say Conservatization of the School Is a Long Time Coming

Another brick in the wall

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has threatened tenure at UT-Austin, during the 2021 Lege session (Photo by John Anderson)

When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stepped to a microphone last month and announced his plan to effectively end the tenure system and the teaching of critical race theory at UT-Austin, faculty and administrators across the university recoiled.

But many weren't shocked. While the announcement last week made headlines and drew near-universal condemnation, a number of observers in Austin have taken it as just another part of a years-long effort to push the state's flagship university in a more conservative direction.

According to UT Govern­ment Department professor Bryan Jones, a crackdown of this magnitude on academic freedom at the university would have serious consequences. "We're heading [toward becoming a second-rate university] real fast," Jones said. "There's no doubt in my mind we will not stay in the top tier very long."

The perceived rightward shift has taken a toll already. One former staffer who departed UT in the last year, due in part to frustration with that shift, said a number of their former colleagues – particularly their BIPOC colleagues – have either left or are considering leaving too. "I know so many people who really thought that this was where they were going to work for the rest of their careers who are leaving en masse ... It's just sad."

The University of Texas has, of course, had a sizable contingent of conservative voices for years, including on the UT Sys­tem Board of Regents. But several sources said UT-Austin noticeably shifted its priorities after the election of Donald Trump, to focus more on reaching out to conservative forces across the state. "There's been a real push to get politicians more involved in higher education," said pharmacology professor Andrea Gore. "So our current higher administration is up against a lot more pressure from the state. I can't say whether they're more conservative or not, but they are under more conservative pressure."

To some faculty and staff, that pressure was evident in the elevation of McCombs School of Business Dean Jay Hartzell to the president's chair two years ago to succeed Greg Fenves, and in his leadership since. One of Hartzell's first big decisions as UT-Austin's leader was to retain the "The Eyes of Texas" as the university's fight song, despite vigorous protest from students in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising in the summer of 2020. He then spent much of the next year in coalition with other university administrators and major conservative donors, working with Patrick to set up and finance a new limited-­government think tank currently called the Liberty Institute to be dedicated to the study and teaching of, among other things, "private enterprise and free markets."

Concerns over academic freedom intensified in November, when the university paused a College of Education study of a program that teaches white preschoolers about anti-Black racism, after University of Michigan-Flint professor and right-wing operative Mark Perry filed a complaint alleging that the study was discriminatory. The university's legal review of the program ultimately only lasted a few days, but the UT-Austin Faculty Council's committee on academic freedom was concerned enough about the precedent it set to initiate its own investigation of whether the pause had violated the researchers' rights.

“If the Legislature were to enact such a law as Patrick wants to do, really qualified, top-notch faculty are not going to look to come to Texas.” – Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association

Faculty and staff remain on alert. Gore said that Patrick's proposal in particular would cripple the university's ability to recruit and retain the country's best faculty, calling it an "existential threat," while Jones said that he would not have come to Austin from the University of Washington 12 years ago if the current threat to academic freedom were looming then.

"I don't know how we're going to get really good professors to come to Texas to teach," said Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association (the higher-­ed affiliate of the Texas State Teachers Association union). "If the Legislature were to enact such a law as Patrick wants to do, really qualified, top-notch faculty are not going to look to come to Texas. They are not going to want what they teach controlled by politicians."

Patrick and other conservative elected officials have not confined their threats to the UT System or even to four-year schools. Heintzelman said that much of her organization's work this year has been focused on Collin College (the community college system in the north Dallas suburbs), where four professors have been fired by the administration over free speech issues.

Academic freedom has been targeted in other states as well. Georgia effectively ended its tenure system in October by giving its universities the power to fire tenured professors without faculty input, while the University of Florida in November initially barred three political science professors from testifying in suits against the state. These moves are extensions of the broader conservative movement in K-12 education that has seen 14 states, including Texas, pass laws restricting or banning the teaching of so-called "critical race theory." Gore pointed to 35 states that have some sort of pending or enacted legislation on what teachers can teach in their classroom. "Most of those are K-12, but those [impact] higher education. So it's a national issue."

The presidents of a number of faculty advocacy groups, including the Texas chapter of the American Association of Univer­si­ty Professors, were set to meet this week to discuss options for resisting Patrick's proposal and illiberalism on their campuses. "There's no question that a lot of people are nervous," Gore said. "We see precedent-setting happening right now, and how the university ultimately responds is going to be critical to faculty making decisions about staying at UT and coming to UT."

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UT-Austin, Dan Patrick, Bryan Jones, Andrea Gore, Jay Hartzell, Critical Race Theory, Pat Heintzelman, academic freedom

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