Hartzell Says Removing Tenure Would Cripple UT

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The President of U-T Austin is speaking out after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick proposed ending tenure for some professors at the university. In a letter to faculty yesterday, Jay Hartzell said removing tenure would "cripple" U-T's staff and hurt students who come to the university to learn from the best. Last week, Patrick said he wanted to revoke tenure from professors who teach "critical race theory," claiming they are trying to "indoctrinate students." Hartzell warned removing tenure would raise the risk of Texas universities "making bad decisions for the wrong reasons."

The following was Hartzell's letter:

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

We are blessed to be part of the state of Texas and are grateful for the continued support from the people of Texas that enables us to be a “university of the first class.” To that end, a first-class university requires first-class faculty. On Friday, we released the faculty promotion and tenure decisions for final approval. This is a big day for the faculty members who will be promoted and/or receive tenure, and well-deserved recognition for their years of hard work and excellence in teaching, research and service.

It is also a big day for the university. Our decisions about whom to promote and grant tenure are arguably the most important we face. Our faculty are our biggest investment and resource for both our teaching and research missions. Accordingly, these decisions show how we define excellence and impact. They set guideposts for all our faculty who make decisions every day about how to allocate their time and effort as they seek to educate our students and change the world.

This is the second promotion cycle I have participated in as president, and while this rigorous process takes several months with up to six different levels of review, I wish all our constituencies could see what I see: our faculty’s amazing work that this process brings to light.

One example is Dr. Philipp Kraehenbuehl, a professor recommended for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure. His work in computer vision and machine learning has applications to robotics and autonomous vehicles – and has been cited over 18,000 times by other researchers. In a field where having cutting-edge researchers in the classroom is especially critical given the pace of change, his Deep Learning classes are very popular and important for our students.

Another professor recommended for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure is Dr. Mary Beth Schmitt. Her work is changing our understanding of how to best help children with language disorders, contradicting the previous consensus that more treatment tends to lead to better gains. She is an excellent teacher, bringing her research strengths to her lab course where she helps our undergraduates understand how children acquire communication abilities. As a testament to her future impact, the National Institutes of Health awarded her a multimillion-dollar grant to study the optimal treatment of children with language impairment.

As a state and country, we want professors like Drs. Kraehenbuehl and Schmitt to be empowered to do their research and teach our students. Tenure is part of what keeps them at UT and gives them the security and long-run horizon to tackle hard problems.

We all aspire to improve the educational system in the United States, but tenure is important to Texas universities, and removing it will not help. The U.S. has the strongest universities in the world, and The University of Texas at Austin is among the very best in the country. All of America’s top research universities grant tenure, and tenure is a significant tool for us to attract, motivate and retain amazing faculty members. Without it, we have no chance of bringing to UT or Texas the next Dr. Karen Willcox, who left MIT to come run the Oden Institute and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering earlier this month. We would also miss out on the next Dr. Jason McLellan, who left Dartmouth to join our Department of Molecular Biosciences. We want Dr. Willcox to lead our efforts in computational oncology, among others, and we want Dr. McLellan to help ensure that we know how to fight coronaviruses.

These faculty members embody our quest to generate tremendous impact that will ultimately benefit Texas and broader society. In this quest, tenure provides our faculty with the ability to invest in research with the greatest long-term potential to produce great discoveries, new technologies, inspirational works of literature and art, and cures for terrible disease. Research progress and its impact are difficult to measure on an annual basis – for example, the first paper documenting the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA) was published in 1961, but the first FDA-approved mRNA vaccine was deployed almost 60 years later in the fight against COVID-19.

Removing tenure would not only cripple Texas’ ability to recruit and retain great faculty members, it would also hurt Texas students, who would not be able to stay in state knowing that they will be learning from the very best in the country. It would also increase the risk of universities across the state making bad decisions for the wrong reasons. Future administrators might make annual retention decisions based on whether they or others did or didn’t like a faculty member’s current research agenda, rather than whether the quality of that research was excellent and held promise to have a positive impact on society in future years.

Some might argue that we make an occasional mistake in granting tenure or that tenure leads a few to unproductive behavior, but the ongoing excellence of our faculty suggests that such issues are rare. There are also processes in place to ensure that tenured faculty members contribute to the university and our students. We implemented and maintain an annual review process to help monitor faculty productivity, with required steps to improve unsatisfactory performance. We also conduct a comprehensive review of all tenured faculty members every six years. These reviews provide mechanisms that can eventually lead to dismissal of any faculty member if needed.

These mechanisms and other key components of our governance have been the result of state legislation. We respect and appreciate the Legislature and our state’s leadership, and we look forward to continuing to participate in the legislative process. Through that process, we will have the opportunity to articulate the excellence embodied in our faculty, the role of tenure in producing world-changing results, and the benefits to Texas of a world-class research university.

Congratulations to all our tenure-track, tenured and professional track faculty members who are up for promotion in September. Thank you to all who were involved in this critically important process. I look forward to reading another batch of files next year, and once again, to being inspired by and proud of the work that happens every day on the Forty Acres.

Hook 'em!

Jay Hartzell


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