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Florida universities push back on proposed new rules for faculty tenure

A view of red flowering trees and a fountain on the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.
A view from the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, one of several state universities that have expressed concern about a proposed statewide policy for reviewing tenured faculty. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

A proposed regulation that would guide decisions on faculty tenure based on Florida’s new “Stop WOKE” law is drawing concern from officials at several state universities.

The policy would create a review for all tenured faculty members in the university system every five years, starting with those who have served the longest. It would be based on several factors, including their compliance with the new law, which forbids universities from “indoctrinating” students with concepts such as white privilege and other ideas and theories surrounding race.

Those rated unsatisfactory during the review could be fired by their provost.

The regulation says a faculty member cannot be fired because of political beliefs or ideology, and a top official argues that termination would happen only after someone failed to improve. It also allows for appeals.

But universities have bristled at many other parts of the proposal, records show.

An associate provost at Florida Atlantic University wrote that the termination provision lacked due process.

Florida International University asked how bias and indoctrination would be measured.

The University of Central Florida questioned the 12-month timeline that faculty would have to improve their work, arguing it wouldn’t be long enough for those who needed to conduct more research.

Many schools wrote that the policy duplicated annual reviews that already take place and policies around misconduct and incompetence.

The general counsel for the University of South Florida said the costs would be high, and forwarded comments from the USF faculty senate, which sent back concerns, including age discrimination.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, the chairperson of the faculty senate, said she asked each faculty senator for feedback from their college and was surprised by their responses.

“The strongest reaction we’ve had are from the STEM faculty and business faculty who actually could work in industry or business and make two, three, four times the amount of money, but they remain in higher education because of tenure giving them academic freedom and the ability to pursue lines of research that they wouldn’t be able to if they worked for a company,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be damaging across the board.”

Jasinski Schneider argued the regulation was an overreach.

“If you want the highest-caliber researchers figuring out what we’re going to do about flooding in Florida and transportation systems and business and how we’re going to build the economy … they need to have tenure to be able to follow lines of research that may not easily or instantly be connected to monetary value,” she said. “Tenure does not protect the dead weight. … Tenure doesn’t guarantee a job, it guarantees intellectual space.”

Despite the concerns, the state Board of Governors voted Wednesday at their meeting in Tampa to advance the policy to allow for 30 days of public comment. A final vote is expected early next year.

Board chairperson Brian Lamb said he understood the concerns but emphasized that part of the regulation was to help faculty feel more appreciated and rewarded for good performance.

“I think if a provost tried to fire a faculty member at the end of the tenure process for political reasons, that would not survive,” he said, adding the regulation was meant to give universities teeth to terminate faculty after they’ve had many chances to improve.

The policy will not trump existing collective bargaining agreements, which govern tenure procedures, but would impact future ones.

Meera Sitharam, vice president of the University of Florida faculty union chapter, said the regulation’s wording is vague, leaves it open to loopholes and puts more power into the hands of administrators.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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