The GOP’s education culture wars have a new target: college professors.
Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that originally set out to completely eliminate tenure at public colleges and universities. In Ohio, lawmakers are weighing legislation that would mandate tenure reviews for professors. This year, at least three more states — North Dakota, Louisiana and Iowa — considered similar measures, although those proposals stalled.
This new wave of bills targets a long-standing and common standard of job protection for college and university professors, meant to ensure freedom of thought among academics and insulate them from political attacks. The bills that are emerging this year are part of a broader trend among conservative legislatures attacking perceived liberal teachings in high schools and public universities: Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that would require professors at public universities in the state to undergo a tenure review process every five years, saying that tenure promotes “intellectual orthodoxy.” Other Republican state leaders like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have since taken up the mantle, arguing that higher-level education is a place of liberal indoctrination and a source of “societal division.”
But the debate is about more than whether professors get to keep their jobs for life: It’s yet another sign that state-level Republicans are doubling down on appealing to their base. The partisan divide between those who go to college and those who do not is one of the firmest divides in American politics today, and it has reinforced diverging attitudes about the value of higher education itself and the role it plays in American life. Republican voters are increasingly suspicious of colleges and universities, and attacks on tenure are just the latest way the party is stoking those concerns.
Patrick’s attacks, which began last year, have been similarly focused on cultural issues, such as the teaching of critical race theory in college courses by “Marxist UT professors.” (Critical race theory, which became a hot-button topic in 2021, is an academic legal framework that asserts racism is systemic and embedded in many American institutions.) Professors, Patrick argued, have to be accountable to university leaders. University of Texas leaders and faculty pushed back against Patrick’s efforts and defended tenure as necessary for recruiting top teaching talent and retaining students. After that, the law was amended to eliminate tenure for new professors only. The Ohio legislation would regulate hiring and firing public university professors, as well as establish an annual evaluation process. The review process would include student evaluations, which ask about whether professors create an environment “free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias.”
Opponents of measures like the ones proposed in Texas and Ohio — and the law passed in Florida last year — are concerned that eliminating tenure will make educators vulnerable to politically motivated firings. The law in Florida would require the state Board of Governors (a body where 14 of the 17 members are appointed by the governor) to establish a five-year review process for professors. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s public colleges and universities already have an annual review process. While supporters have said its goal is to eliminate professors who are no longer meeting standards, most critics think — and DeSantis’s comments seem to suggest — that the motivations for removing a professor could be more political. Then-Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls told the Tampa Bay Times that the bill would prevent “indoctrination.”
The public seems opposed to politically motivated firings. In a YouGov/Yahoo News survey conducted March 16-20, 55 percent of U.S. adults, including 47 percent of Republicans, opposed giving “political appointees the power to fire public college and university professors at any time for any reason.” In a different YouGov survey from March 2-6, 54 percent of adults somewhat or strongly opposed allowing a state university board to make “hiring decisions without the input of faculty or administrators.”
However, the idea that colleges and universities are indoctrinating students in liberal orthodoxy is prevalent among Republican voters, especially the parents and grandparents of college students and graduates perceived as being more liberal. In surveys and interviews conducted by PerryUndem and YouGov, in partnership with FiveThirtyEight, last August, Republican voters were much more likely to think that colleges and even high schools were trying to promote liberal propaganda than Democratic voters were.
This has been coupled with declining support for academic institutions in general among Republicans. In October, 76 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans told the Pew Research Center that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say colleges and universities had a positive impact on society in the survey. In a 2019 survey from Pew, older Republicans were especially likely to view higher education with skepticism: Ninety-six percent of Republicans age 65 and older who said those institutions were headed in the wrong direction thought that “professors bringing their views into the classroom” was a major reason for it.
That could explain why DeSantis signed the tenure-review bill at The Villages, a Central Florida senior-living community famous for being a stronghold of former President Donald Trump. Leaning into the education culture wars may be DeSantis’s plan for winning them over.