UT faculty say school conservation is a long time coming: another brick in the wall – News


Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who threatened to start at UT-Austin, during the 2021 Lege session (Photo by John Anderson)

When Lieutenant Governor. Dan Patrick took to the microphone last month and announced his intention to effectively end the tenure system and the teaching of critical race theory at UT-Austinprofessors and university administrators backed down.

But many were not shocked. While last week’s announcement grabbed headlines and drew near-universal condemnation, a number of observers in Austin saw it as another part of a years-long effort to push the university state flagship 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 are moving [toward becoming a second-rate university] very quickly,” Jones said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we won’t be in the front runners for very long.”

The perceived shift to the right has already taken its toll. A former staff member who left UT last year, in part due to frustration over the change, said a number of his former colleagues – particularly their BIPOC colleagues – have left or are planning to leave as well. “I know so many people who really thought this was where they were going to work for the rest of their careers and are leaving in droves… It’s just sad.”

The University of Texas has, of course, had a large contingent of conservative voices for years, including on the UT system. council of regents. But multiple sources said UT-Austin shifted its priorities significantly after Donald Trump was elected, to focus more on outreach to conservative forces across the state. “There has been a real effort to involve politicians more in higher education,” said the pharmacology professor Andrea Gore. “So our current senior administration is facing a lot more pressure from the state. I can’t say whether they’re more conservative or not, but they’re under more conservative pressure.”

For some faculty and staff, this pressure was evident in the elevation of the dean of the McCombs School of Business jay hartzell to the presidency two years ago to succeed Greg Fenves, and in his direction ever since. One of Hartzell’s first big decisions as leader of UT-Austin was to retain the “Texas eyesas a college fight song, despite vigorous student protests following the Black Lives Matter uprising in the summer of 2020. He then spent much of the following year in coalition with other administrators academics and major conservative donors, working with Patrick to set up and fund a new limited government think tank currently called the Freedom Institute to devote itself to the study and teaching of, among other things, “private enterprise and free markets”.

Academic freedom concerns escalated in November, when the university suspended a College of Education study of a program that teaches preschool-aged white children anti-black racismafter professor at the University of Michigan-Flint and right-wing agent Mark Perry filed a complaint alleging that the study was discriminatory. The university’s legal review of the program ultimately lasted only a few days, but UT-Austin Faculty CouncilThe Academic Freedom Committee was concerned enough about the precedent it set to launch its own investigation into whether the break violated scholars’ rights.

“If the Legislature were to enact such legislation as Patrick desires, truly qualified, top-notch teachers will not seek to come to Texas.” – Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Association of Teachers

Faculty and staff remain on alert. Gore said Patrick’s proposal in particular would cripple the university’s ability to recruit and retain the best professors in the country, calling it an “existential threat”, while Jones said 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 teachers to come to Texas to teach,” said Pat Heintzelmanpresident of the YouXas a teachers’ association (the top affiliate of the Texas State Teachers Association union). “If the legislature were to enact such a law as Patrick wants, truly qualified, top-notch teachers won’t seek to come to Texas. They won’t want what they teach controlled by politicians.”

Patrick and other conservative lawmakers have not limited their threats to the UT system or even four-year schools. Heintzelman said much of his organization’s work this year has been focused on Collin College (the community college system in the northern suburbs of Dallas), where four professors were fired by the administration over free speech concerns.

Academic freedom has also been targeted in other states. Georgia effectively ended its tenure system in October by giving its universities the power to fire tenured professors without faculty interference, while the University of Florida in November, initially barred three political science professors from testifying in state lawsuits. These movements are extensions of the broader conservative movement in K-12 education which 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 legislation pending or enacted on what teachers can teach in their classroom. “Most of them 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 Teachers, were due to meet this week to discuss options for resisting Patrick’s proposal and the illiberalism on their campuses. “There’s no doubt a lot of people are nervous,” Gore said. “We are seeing precedent setting happening right now, and how the university ultimately responds will be key in making decisions for faculty about whether to stay at UT and come to UT. “

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