Students walk across the Tampa campus at the University of South Florida, one of 12 state schools affected by legislation that would make it harder for faculty members to keep their tenure status. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The push to reform Florida’s public higher education system, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis and conservative lawmakers, has resurfaced a longstanding debate over the purpose and value of tenure.

Last year, DeSantis signed a bill into law requiring public university leaders to review professors’ tenure every five years. And a bill introduced earlier this month would go even further, allowing university trustees to call for a tenure review “at any time.”

Professors and their supporters said that legislation clawing back tenure’s job protections jeopardizes academic freedom and Florida’s position as the top public university system in the nation.

Florida’s tenure system has its challenges. The state’s tenured faculty members are mostly white and male, with few signs that will soon change. Movement toward a more diverse mix has been slow, and the number of tenured faculty is on the decline.

The Tampa Bay Times took a closerlook, focusing on who gets tenure and how it affects Florida families who rely on the state’s higher education system. Here are some key things to knowas the Legislature debates the subject:

Tenure protects academic freedom

DeSantis has framed the reforms as holding faculty accountable and making the state’s higher education institutions “more in line with what the state’s priorities are and, frankly, the priorities of the parents throughout the state of Florida.”

Tenure allows faculty to pursue their research and teaching free from exactly that kind of political pressure, said Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, a statewide union.

It’s a long road from graduate school to tenure, one that can take over a decade in some cases. After graduation, most doctoral students will take a “post-doc” position working for another researcher for a few years before securing a tenure-eligible job.

From there, the “tenure clock” starts. Faculty typically have about six years to produce enough research, win enough grants and teach enough classes to impress the other professors in their department. Once their colleagues decide a candidate is worthy of tenure, school administrators have to approve the decision.

That’s the typical path in most fields, though in some disciplines — like business and fine arts — career achievement can substitute for academic experience on the route to tenure.

“Tenure protects faculty of all political persuasions from being targeted, from being fired, from having their research affected,” Gothard said. “It ensures that the research faculty undertake can’t be hindered or affected by politicians when they need to score cheap political points in an election cycle.”

One example of how tenure protects faculty speech involves Charles Negy, a professor of psychology at University of Central Florida. Negy was fired in 2022 after his tweets about “Black privilege” and “racism against whites” sparked an internal investigation into his on-campus conduct.

In May, an arbitrator ordered the school to reinstate Negy after finding that the university had violated his rights as a tenured professor by failing to show “just cause” for his termination.

Tenured faculty can still be fired for misconduct or incompetency, but tenure agreements ensure that the university conducts a proper investigation and gives the faculty member due process to appeal the school’s decision.

By setting a high bar for termination, tenure agreements also offer a promise of job security for faculty. In many agreements, faculty can be laid off in case of extreme financial emergencies but are protected from the day-to-day business decisions of university administration.

Attracting top faculty could get harder

Tenure lets researchers take big swings at high-risk/high-reward projects without fear that they’ll be let go if their big idea leads nowhere.

“When I was studying for a Ph.D., my thesis advisertold me not to work on major projects until I got tenure because you take many years and they entail risks,” Greg McColm, a University of South Florida math professor, told the Senate education committee on March 15.

One major breakthrough took him a decade to complete, said McColm, who also serves as secretary of the United Faculty of Florida chapter at USF. “I would not have been able to even think about doing something crazy like that if I had not had tenure.”

Top researchers in any field are looking for that kind of support when considering a job offer, said Meera Sitharam, a computer science professor at the University of Florida.

Legislation that erodes that job security makes it harder for schools to attract and retain quality teachers and researchers when they could be making more money outside the university, said Sitharam, who is vice president of UF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter.

When you take the promise of tenure off the table, not many people are willing to make that sacrifice, she said.

“At some point you get embarrassed to ask people to come to Florida,” Sitharam said. “You ask them to apply (to an open position) and they think you’re joking.”

Tenure is already on the wane

Florida public universities employed about 17,600 instructors in 2021, including medical and nursing school faculty. Less than one-third had tenure. Another 12% were on the yearslong journey to becoming tenured, a path known as the tenure track.

The share of tenured and tenure-track instructors at Florida public universities have each fallen by about 4 percentage points in the past 20 years, mirroring national trends.

Driving that decline is a boom in part-time and contingent positions, such as adjunct professors who teach a class or two.Those roles have grown from 48% of the State University System’s workforce in 2002 to over 56% in 2021.

Part of that may have to do with money. On average, tenured faculty with the title full professor earn nearly double what full-time instructors and lecturers are paid at Florida’s public universities, according to federal data. Even getting a tenure-track position means a nearly 40% increase in pay over nontenured faculty, on average.

At USF, for example, a nontenure-track instructor earned $62,803 in 2021, on average. A tenure-track assistant professor earned nearly $87,000 and a tenured full professor earned over $135,000.

Part-time faculty were paid even less, on average, earning about $3,400 per course, according to survey data collected by the American Association of University Professors.

School administrators may also find nontenured staff more appealing because they’re less likely to rock the boat,according to Irene Mulvey, president of the association.

“Most (nontenure-track) faculty will not feel comfortable sharing concerns about how the university is run or how budgetary decisions may not be supporting the core academic mission because they know they are vulnerable,” Mulvey said in an email. “If they get on the wrong side of a dean or the provost, they can easily be let go.”

Tenured professors are the academic driving force at a university and are expected to contribute to the school by producing high-profile research that can attract students, faculty and grant money,said Francisco Alberto Fernandez-Lima, a chemistry professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Nontenure-track instructors typically focus on teaching, he said, adding that high pass rates and good student evaluations can mean the difference between keeping their job and being let go.

Research shows that student satisfaction is highly correlated with the grades they receive. That can prompt contingent instructors to water down their courses and ease up on grading to appease both students and administrators looking for good graduation metrics, Fernandez-Lima said.

Students tend to give tougher evaluations to women and nonwhite instructors, with Black women facing the harshest evaluations, according to a 2022 meta-study of over 100 research papers.

At many schools, nontenure-track faculty can’t participate in governance or sit on committees. At USF, part-time instructors are ineligible to participate in the faculty senate, which advises school leadership on academic matters.

The trend toward nontenured jobs isn’t unique to Florida.

Nationally, the share of tenured instructors at public research universities has fallen by about 8 percentage points in the past 20 years, while the share of nontenure-track and part-time instructors has increased nearly 10 percentage points.

2022 study from the American Association of University Professors found that more than 60% of public higher education institutions have replaced tenure-eligible positions with nontenure-track or part-time appointments in the past five years.

Race and gender gaps may only get wider

Women, Black and Hispanic faculty are much more likely to serve in nontenure-track positions, relative to their male and white colleagues at nearly all of Florida’s public universities.

About 34% of tenured positions at Florida public universities are held by women, which is 20 percentage points lower than the share in full-time nontenure-track jobs.

The National Center for Education Statistics does not track gender, race and ethnicity statistics for part-time staff.

Part of the disparity has to do with age, said Sitharam, the UF professor.

The median age of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the U.S. is 49, according to a 2018 survey from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. That means many of the senior tenured instructors come from an era when significantly fewer women attended college and even fewer went to graduate school.

Women also take on more responsibilities on committees and advising undergraduates, which can eat into time and energy devoted to research, according to a 2017 paper in the American Economic Review.

Still, the share of women in tenured positions has increased 4 percentage points in the past nine years and the share in tenure-track jobs has stayed stagnant at about 44%.

Women and nonwhite faculty can find it difficult to speak out with a differing viewpoint when they’re in such a small minority among senior faculty, said Geveryl Robinson, who teaches English at USF — where 63% of tenured faculty are men and 68% are white, according to federal data.

That can be especially true on hiring committees, where members tend to favor candidates who mirror their own backgrounds, Robinson said. ”That’s how you end up with departments (with faculty) who went to the same school or have the same viewpoint.”

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that university hiring committees led by women or nonwhite members tend to attract a more diverse pool of candidates.

Robinson, who is Black, does not have tenure and said she feels a responsibility to speak because she has less to lose compared to older, tenured faculty members.

Black instructors represent about 7% of tenured faculty at Florida public universities. That’s more than double the average rate among public universities in the American Association of Universities, a group of more than 60 top research schools that Florida’s public universities use as a benchmark.

The number has remained essentially unchanged since 2013.

Black tenured faculty are not distributed equally across the state’s schools. Nearly half of them — and one-third of all Black full-time instructors — teach at Florida A&M, the third-largest historically Black university in the nation.

Statewide, about 6% of tenured instructors are Hispanic. That’s higher than the average across the American Association of Universities’ public members, but Hispanic faculty are concentrated at a few schools. Nearly half of tenured Hispanic faculty are at either UF or Florida International University.

Notably, more than 1 in 10 tenured instructors at FIU are Hispanic. The school is the nation’s largest Hispanic-Serving Institution, a federal designation for colleges and universities with more than 25% Hispanic enrollment. It also has one of the highest shares of tenured Hispanic teachers among public research universities nationally.

Still, that number is nowhere near the 75% of first-time undergraduate students at FIU who are Hispanic, said math professor Enrique Villamor. Many of the Hispanic students he teaches are the first in their family to attend college, and many workwhile in school.

“The upper-level classes is where you have real impact, but those classes are all tenured (or tenure-track faculty,)” Villamor said. “That’s where we talk about, here’s what you need for graduate school or to get an internship in industry. … If you want more Hispanics in (science, technology, engineering and math fields), this is where you need role models for kids.”

Addressing faculty disparities has gotten harder since Florida legislators have weakened tenure protections, Villamor said.

His department is struggling to fill a tenure-track position, a scenario that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago.

“We’re reaching out to people everywhere,” he said, “and some are saying ‘no’ to Florida.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.