Sunday, April 24, 2022

Even at Universities, You Will Teach What the Republicans Tell You to Teach...

 …or else you will be fired. That’s what will happen if, in the next session, the Texas legislature passes the law proposed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

The purpose of tenure in higher education is to protect professors from retaliation by politicians for teaching things that the politicians do not like. It is a protection for truth. By doing away with tenure, the Texas legislature will make higher education in Texas an organ of Republican indoctrination, similar to higher education in Soviet (or Putinist) Russia and Communist China. You teach what the Party tells you to teach, Comrade, or you will be sent to the Texas equivalent of Siberia or Manchuria—or, at least, fired.

Occasionally, professors use tenure as a screen for substandard work, or for their own outlandish theories. But the state university systems with which I am familiar have regular reviews of tenured faculty to make sure they are doing their jobs. Since I got tenure in Oklahoma in 2003, I have turned in about five “post-tenure reviews,” which were examined by committees, in which I had to provide documentation that I was not only doing my job but continuing to keep up with, and contribute to, research in my field.

There are occasional tenured professors you just can’t stop. We had one such professor at my institution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is occurring and is caused mainly by human-generated carbon dioxide. But this professor taught his students that global warming is a worldwide hoax the purpose of which was to reduce the money that he got for his patented invention used in the petroleum industry. We just put up with him, told our students that he was wrong, and waited for him to retire. In his particular case, we might have preferred that tenure did not offer him any place to hide. But the tenure process that was meant to protect all of us protected him and his right wing extremist screeds.

On the face of it, Lt. Governor Patrick’s purpose appears limited. Conservatives in Texas and Oklahoma loathe Critical Race Theory. Patrick’s proposed law claims to be aimed just at this theory. But we all know that the law rescinds all tenure for new faculty hires. This means that the state government, which is ultimately in control of tenure (my tenure had to be approved by the state government in Oklahoma), can use any reason they like for denying tenure, if this law passes. I teach evolution. Texas and Oklahoma Republicans hate evolution. It’s easy to see where this is going.

Texas prides itself in its educational system. K-12 teachers are paid well, and higher education is well supported. One of my former Oklahoma undergrad student got a job as a high school teacher and, immediately upon being hired as a high school biology teacher in Texas, was earning more money than I do now as a tenured professor. The message is, or has been, clear: come to Texas and you will find satisfying and well-paid work as an educator, or for corporations (mostly oil). Your kids will get a good education.

But this message is changing. All over the country, new Ph.D.’s are looking for work, and at the moment Texas looks like a good place to go for work. But if this law passes, new Ph.D.’s will suspect that, if they go to Texas, the government will dictate what they are to teach and what they are to research. If you are an historian or sociologist, your research must not reach any conclusions that you suspect the state government may not like. A job offer in Minnesota vs. a job offer in Texas will then be a no-brainer.

Oklahoma is, and has always been, worse. Whatever Texas does, Oklahoma will do a few months later. Our governor, Kevin Stitt, wants to imitate Governor Greg Abbott. I am convinced that the Oklahoma House and Senate will pass bills just like the one that Lt. Governor Patrick demands in Texas. And in Oklahoma, we do not support education very well. K-12 and higher education has always been supported in Oklahoma far less than in Texas. In Oklahoma, we will fall just as precipitously as Texas, but starting from a lower level.

The supply line of academic Ph.D.’s is drying up. We (at a university in rural Oklahoma) advertised for a botanist (to replace me when I retire) and we got only five applicants, four of whom were not interested in teaching. The fifth applicant had his choice of jobs wherever he wanted to go, and he decided not to come here. When I applied for jobs in 1992, one of the institutions said that they had received 800 applications. Being a teaching professor is now a much less desirable career, and for the ever smaller pool of Ph.D.’s who want to teach, Oklahoma and Texas will be off the edge of the Earth.

Professors at private institutions in Texas (hi, Mary Kay!) need not worry. But the entire body of higher education in Texas will be hurt by this tarnished image. And, of course, Oklahoma.

As a retiring professor, my advice to any new Ph.D.’s reading this is, don’t come to Oklahoma or Texas. Matter of fact, the whole field is in precipitous decline. Do something else. For me, doing research and teaching in botany was always my highest aspiration, even when I was in high school. That is a dream from the past.

To whatever extent higher education has served as the conscience of the nation, it will serve that function no longer. I am so freaking glad I am retiring now. For those of you with ten to twenty years more work as teaching professors, good luck. I am one of perhaps the last wave of professors who, by teaching and writing and research, will have been able to make a difference, and to make the world better.

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