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Free speech organizations ask IHL to roll back ‘ripe for abuse’ tenure changes

University of Mississippi students walk to class on the Oxford campus. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Two national organizations sent a joint letter Wednesday calling on the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees to roll back changes to its tenure policies after a Mississippi Today report. 

PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — nonprofits that advocate for free speech in higher education — say the board’s revisions are “untenable” and “raise significant concerns under the First Amendment.” 

Mississippi Today first reported on the series of changes, which the board proposed without public input and adopted without discussion last week. The changes give university presidents, not IHL, the final say on granting tenure to faculty in Mississippi. 

The revised policies also contain new language that university presidents can use to determine whether to grant tenure, including a faculty member’s “collegiality,” “effectiveness, accuracy and integrity in communications,” and “contumacious conduct,” a factor that was previously only included in the board’s tenure dismissal policy. This new language was added to three of the board’s eight tenure policies: Promotions in rank, minimum standards for tenured employment, and post-tenure review.

PEN America and FIRE are most concerned about these latter changes, said Jeremy Young, PEN America’s senior manager of free expression and education. The letter says these new provisions are unclear and  “virtually certain to become a tool for sanitizing campuses of viewpoints with which university presidents disagree.” 

Tenure is a type of indefinite job protection that is unique to higher education, but essentially just means that faculty can’t be fired without cause. It is a way to ensure faculty members have academic freedom to, for example, publish research that could offend a powerful university donor without repercussions. 

The letter says that IHL’s new policies — specifically the inclusion of a “definition-less concept” like collegiality — are easy to misuse and could lead to presidents denying tenure to faculty they do not personally like. 

“This is a subjective requirement ripe for abuse and which, therefore, significantly threatens academic freedom,” the letter says. “These threats are not speculative. Faculty have been terminated, disciplined, or denied tenure under collegiality-type requirements simply for expressing unpopular viewpoints or criticizing their administrations.” 

PEN America and FIRE are also concerned these policies could infringe on faculty’s First Amendment Rights. If these changes hold, it’s likely faculty will start to self-censor their speech, especially online. 

The letter notes that, “in the university context, the Supreme Court has explained that “the mere dissemination of ideas — no matter how offensive to good taste — on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” 

The American Association of University Professors is also concerned about these changes, said Greg Scholtz, the director of the organization’s academic freedom department. 

In his role, Scholtz has reviewed hundreds of faculty handbooks, bylaws and collective bargaining agreements on college campuses. He called IHL’s policies, both the changes and existing standards, “a little unusual.” Specifically, Scholtz referenced an existing line in IHL’s promotions policy that evaluates faculty on “effectiveness in interpersonal relationships.” 

“This, for us, is quite objectionable,” Scholtz said. “I’ve never seen that before, but that suggests a niceness factor. I don’t know what to say, that’s odd.” 

The board did not notify faculty it was considering these policy changes, which it ultimately approved without discussion on the consent agenda at its meeting last week. 

Trustees did discuss the policies at a retreat in March, but that meeting was held at Mississippi State University’s Riley Center in Meridian, an hour-and-a-half away from the complex where the board typically meets in Jackson. Unlike most IHL meetings, the retreat was not live-streamed. 

Scholtz said the IHL board seems “to be accountable only to their political constituencies. They don’t seem to have a sense of being fiduciaries, of holding trust … which would also involve having some interest and concern for what the professionals in the system believe is good and necessary.”

PEN America and FIRE requested the IHL board provide a “substantive response” to the letter by May 11. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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