Changes in tenure coming with new Florida law
A new law in Florida will change the tenure status of instructors in the state’s colleges and universities. Last month, Governor Ron DeSantis signed SB-7044, a bill that establishes a new post-tenure, five-year review cycle for professors at the state’s public institutions. At the signing ceremony, the governor said the bill will keep faculty and curriculum in line with what he calls the state’s priorities.
“Higher education is important, but it needs to be accountable,” said DeSantis. “We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and that they just don’t have tenure forever, without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing.”
DeSantis says the changes to the tenure system in Florida will prevent professors from what he calls "indoctrinating students" in certain ideologies.
“Tenure was there to protect people, so they could do ideas that maybe would cause them to lose their job or whatever and academic freedom. I don’t know that that’s really the role that it plays, quite frankly, anymore.”
“Tenure is a job protection,” said Emma Pettit, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who has written extensively about tenure. “That means a professor can only be fired for cause or under extraordinary financial circumstances or if their program closes.”
The new law in Florida sets up a post-tenure review for professors every five years.
“Basically it means that after you get tenure you have to go through an additional rigorous review where you look at things like research, teaching, service, et cetera,” said Pettit. “What faculty and higher ed observers are worried about in Florida is that this bill is being influenced by partisan politics. And that the review process that will come out of it would mean that professors could potentially face consequences for, say, doing something that angers a university official, or that partisan politics could play a role in these reviews (in a way that) it hasn’t before.”
Gov. DeSantis Signs Bill to Reform Florida’s Higher Education https://t.co/275WD41D2K— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) April 19, 2022
Florida has a dozen state universities. Ten of those institutions offer professors tenure while the other two offer multi-year contracts. One of the schools that does offer tenure is the University of West Florida.
“UWF currently has a very robust sustained performance evaluation system which is akin to a post-tenure review,” said Dr. George Ellenberg, provost and senior vice president at UWF. “Every associate or full professor must undergo a sustained performance evaluation every six years.”
During this review, faculty have to demonstrate they met the criteria established in the departmental bylaws for teaching, research, and service. The biggest change for the university would be the timing. The new law states the review must happen every five years while UWF does it every six years.
What the state-mandated review will finally look like is still a bit of a mystery. “We don’t have a lot of detail on this right now,” said Ellenberg. “Because the Board of Governors has been charged with developing a regulation which will have to be vetted through the Board of Governors before this is implemented. So we’re still looking at the statute. Yes, it will change some things. But our faculty are very much used to annual evaluations, to sustained performance evaluations, or post-tenure review. So in terms of what this means for how they do what they do I don’t foresee any substantial changes.”
The new law will also affect the way colleges and universities are accredited in the state. It says that universities must go to a different accreditation agency each cycle. “What the bill today is going to do is it’s going to is end this accreditation monopoly,” said DeSantis at the bill signing ceremony. “The role that these accreditation agencies play, I don’t even know where they come from. I mean they basically are just effectively self-anointed.”
“Accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process for the colleges themselves,” said Pettit. “Also there isn’t a huge open market for accreditation. Particularly for doctorate-granting research universities. The federal government recognizes more than 60 accreditors, but the majority are approved to accredit one particular academic program (for example) nursing. So in practice, experts worry that requiring colleges to change accreditors would create an enormous bureaucratic burden for those institutions, take up a lot of staff time, and could cost thousands of dollars per institution.”
Another worry is that after spending the time and money to apply to a new accreditor, that application could very well be rejected. “And they have somewhat of an incentive to say no”, says Pettit. That's because the bill could create legal headaches for accreditors. “It allows colleges, essentially, to sue if they’ve been ‘negatively impacted’ I believe is the phrase, by an accreditor. That (phrase) isn’t really defined in the bill, but experts warn that accreditors might look at that and just say ‘Nope, I don’t want any part of that.”
The Board of Governors has until September 1 to select a slate of accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The new law goes into effect on July 1.