FL university system imposes 5-year tenure review; profs, other advocates criticize the change

By: - March 29, 2023 4:59 pm

University of Florida. Credit: UF website.

Florida’s state university system is making major changes to long-time tenure protections, meaning that established professors would have to undergo a review every five years to determine the faculty members’ “productivity.”

However, Florida-based professors and other advocates say that the new rule, approved by the Florida Board of Governors Wednesday, could hurt academic freedom and impact a faculty members’ livelihood.

The issue of Florida’s five-year post-tenure evaluations, among other changes to the state’s universities, is getting nationwide criticism from multiple organizations, including American Association of University Professors, the American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, and American Historical Association and a dozen others.

Faculty in other states are even voicing their opposition to Florida’s new higher education policies, such as the University of Rhode Island Faculty Senate and the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York.

“Over the past two years, Florida elected officials have attacked the independence and integrity of the state’s public higher education institutions…introducing a requirement for five-year post-tenure reviews, they have undermined tenure and academic freedom,” the Professional Staff Congress said in a written statement.

The American Association of University Professors explains that tenure serves as a “safeguard” for a professor’s academic freedom.

“A tenured appointment is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation,” the AAUP explains on its website.

It continues: “When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.”

Then-Sen. Manny Diaz Jr.  Credit: Florida Channel

But new rules adopted Wednesday by the Florida Board of Governors tasks each university board of trustees to adopt policies that evaluate tenured professors on a handful of unified goals from a statewide standpoint.

The rule adoption is due to a new law from the 2022 legislative session, which was pushed by then-Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., who added in a last-minute amendment calling for the 5-year tenure review. Then Sen. Ray Rodrigues was a co-sponsor. Diaz is now the Florida Education Commissioner. Rodrigues is the Chancellor of the university system.

Under this new rule, faculty are to be evaluated on “productivity,” “meeting the responsibilities and expectations associated with assigned duties,” and “compliance with state laws, Board of Governors’ regulations, and university regulations and policies.”

The chief academic officer of the university, often referred to as the ‘provost,’ would make the final call on a professor’s performance, according to the rule.

But the Florida higher education system has experienced an overhaul by the DeSantis administration, facing a mountain of changes that cater to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ conservative views regarding a variety of concerns, including tenure protections.  That’s why some Florida professors are concerned that the state is becoming a hostile environment for current and prospective faculty.

The rule says that a professor evaluation “shall not consider or otherwise discriminate” based on a professor’s “political or ideological viewpoints,” but some are skeptical on whether that provision will be adhered to.

J. Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida. Credit: UFF.

“The way that many of our faculty are looking at it is that this is intentionally designed from the ground up to allow bad actors to cull faculty from departments with whom they personally disagree or who have politics that are inconvenient to the institution,” Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, told the Phoenix.

“Or, as we’ve seen with the narrative that’s been coming out of Tallahassee, who have politics that disagree with those of the governor,” he added.

University professors told the Board of Governors Wednesday that they’re already experiencing additional difficulties in the hiring process of prospective faculty member due to new policies like the 5-year post-tenure review.

“When we sit on search committees the first thing we do is reach out, emails, spend lots of time making phone calls. And more and more often, we are hearing ‘Florida? Not Florida. Not now. Not yet,'” Mathew Lata, president of the Florida State University chapter for the United Faculty of Florida, told the Board of Governors.

Jennifer Proffitt, a communications professor at Florida State University, echoed Lata’s concerns:

“I’ve heard several concerns raised by search committees regarding candidates who were offered jobs turning them down because other positions in other states, even if they pay less, still had strong tenure protections in place that will allow them to continue to do their work without fear of political influence or reprisal. So recruiting highly faculty highly qualified faculty is already proving to be an issue,” she said Wednesday.

During the current legislative session, lawmakers are looking further to reduce the value of tenure protections by subjecting faculty to undergo a post-tenure review at any point with cause, in addition to the 5-tenure review.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.