Texas’ political environment driving faculty to leave, survey finds

A student walks through the Library Mall at the University of North Texas in Denton on March 22, 2022. Credit: Emil Lippe for The Texas Tribune

By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

The political climate in Texas is the leading contributor to professors’ desire to leave the state, a new survey of more than 1,900 Texas faculty members found. More than a quarter of those professors said they planned to look for positions elsewhere in the country this year as a result of political interference and widespread dissatisfaction with the state of higher education in Texas.

The survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors and the Texas Faculty Association follows warnings from faculty and students that bills targeting tenure and closing diversity, equity and inclusion offices — prioritized by state leaders during this most recent legislative session — would negatively impact universities’ ability to recruit and retain professors.

“These findings serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, administrators, employers, and other concerned citizens, emphasizing the urgent need to address the concerns raised by faculty members. Failure to do so may result in a significant exodus of faculty, challenges attracting academic talent, and an overall decline in the quality of higher education,” read a statement from the groups published with the survey’s findings.

About two-thirds of Texas respondents said they would not recommend out-of-state colleagues take positions in Texas. Of the professors surveyed, 57% cited the state’s political climate as their top reason for wanting to leave Texas. The second and third most cited reasons for a desire to leave were anxieties about salary and concerns over academic freedom, respectively.

Republican-led efforts to reshape higher education in Texas universities resulted in two major pieces of legislation that eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion offices and made changes to tenure.

Lawmakers hoping to diminish a perceived liberal bias on college campuses put forward Senate Bill 17, which bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, trainings and programs at all of the state’s public colleges and universities. Since the Legislature passed SB 17, university systems have been grappling with how to comply with the new law that takes effect at the beginning of next year.

Students who support diversity initiatives say the pushback to these offices and programs will make it harder for college campuses to be equal playing fields regardless of race or class and to become places that are representative of the state’s population.

Some Republican state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, hoped to completely eliminate tenure during this past regular session. But the House watered down the effort to abolish the longstanding practice at universities, which supports say helps protect professors academic freedom, resulting in a revised Senate Bill 18 that keeps faculty tenure and directs university governing boards to establish policies to grant and revoke tenure.

While these laws directly affect universities that receive public funding, the survey administrators were surprised to learn that faculty from private schools were also feeling pressure from these laws.

“I heard from a couple of folks from private universities that would be well-regarded nationally, and they were having trouble hiring,” Brian Evans, AAUP’s Texas conference president, told reporters on Wednesday. “People just didn’t want to come to Texas.”

Faculty associations conducted the survey, distributed by social media and email in August, to determine the impact of legislation in southern states, Matthew Boedy, the Georgia conference president for AAUP, said on Wednesday.

More than 4,250 professors from Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida were surveyed.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/07/texas-higher-education-faculty-dei-tenure/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.