South Carolina assault on tenure ‘will drive academics away’

In latest attack by conservatives on academic freedom, South Carolina Republicans propose five-year limit on all faculty contracts

December 2, 2021
A sign warning about alligators on the course to the golfers to illustrate South Carolina assault on tenure ‘will drive academics away’
Source: Getty

Republicans in the US state of South Carolina are making a bid to end tenure outright at their state universities, escalating a nationwide series of conservative attacks on the tenets of higher education.

The move by more than two dozen South Carolina lawmakers follows actions in several other politically conservative states to create or toughen systems for post-tenure review.

With their proposal – setting a five-year limit on employment contracts in the state’s eight-university system – South Carolina lawmakers would make their state the first to end tenure altogether.

The leader of South Carolina’s effort, state representative Bill Taylor, has been arguing that universities should be no different from other employers that regularly assess their workers.

University leaders have rejected that premise, noting that South Carolina already has faculty assessment systems including a version of post-tenure review that can lead to loss of tenure and dismissal as warranted.

The proposed law was so aggressive, said Shawn Smolen-Morton, president of the statewide chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), that it would leave faculty with fewer protections than many other state employees who have passed probationary employment periods.

“Earning tenure is a long and difficult process, and tenure does not circumvent the requirements of state contracts or any other law,” said Dr Smolen-Morton, an associate professor of English at Francis Marion University.

The prospects for the bill were not clear. With a month until the legislature convenes, Mr Taylor has amassed 24 Republican co-sponsors in the 124-member state House of Representatives, which his party controls by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Several US states, meanwhile, have caught up to South Carolina in creating systems by which their professors face mandatory review processes to keep their tenured status, or have toughened systems that already exist.

Some Iowa lawmakers tried earlier this year to end tenure at their three public colleges, complaining that the institutions and their faculty don’t properly respect the perspectives of their conservative students. Their effort was defeated, but its advocates have promised to keep pursuing the idea.

The attacks on tenure are part of a broader pattern of actions in Republican-led states that includes the University of Florida trying to forbid its faculty from testifying in court cases against the state government and blocking faculty attempts to include racial equity content in curriculum.

As in Florida and other states, faculty in South Carolina are warning that such violations of academic freedom raise the risk of top researchers and educators avoiding the state or leaving if they are already there.

“It wouldn’t happen all at once,” said Carol Harrison, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and president of the flagship campus’ AAUP chapter. Instead, if a tenure-ending bill does pass, she said, colleagues likely would “trickle away as many offers that are not currently competitive would become more so with academic freedom weighed in the balance”.

Recruiting would become much more difficult, Professor Harrison said. “Anyone would think twice,” she said, “before coming to an institution where they could expect lawmakers to scrutinise and second-guess their teaching and research.”

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