Missouri Lawmaker Who Wants to Eliminate Tenure Says It’s ‘Un-American’

January 12, 2017

Julie Smith/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP
Legislation proposed by State Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican in Missouri, would fix a “broken” system, he says, by requiring colleges to publish the price of individual degrees and the job prospects for students who earn them.

College graduates in Missouri should be able to find jobs that correspond with their degrees, and their professors should help them do so, says State Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican.

To make that happen, Mr. Brattin says, he would eliminate tenure at Missouri’s public colleges and universities. House Bill 266, introduced this month, would outlaw awarding tenure in Missouri to faculty members hired after January 1, 2018. (The bill would not apply to faculty members hired before January 1, 2018.)

HB 266 would also require public colleges to publish more information, including the estimated price of individual degrees, employment opportunities expected for degree earners, and a summary of the job market for each degree, among other things.

Mr. Brattin spoke on Wednesday with The Chronicle about his proposal, which would lower college costs and fix a "broken" system. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Why did you feel this bill was needed?

A. The biggest intent had to do with the provision of being transparent in the cost to students for the degrees that they receive. We’ve seen throughout the media and all across the nation where some professors are taking what is supposed to be their responsibility of teaching and, once they reach tenure, they are able to start teaching classes that really aren’t, in a lot of people’s opinion, especially ones that are paying for that college degree, are a little out of the scope of what’s going to help them in a real-world situation.

In today’s day and age, a need for tenure is outdated. There are provisions that do protect the ability for a professor to teach in accordance to how they see fit, but not go off the rails and off the deep end on a protection such as this.

Q. What is a better solution for the university-employment process? As you know, virtually every American university uses tenure.

A. Where else in any other industry do you have tenure, do you have a protection to where after you work somewhere for so long you’re basically immune? That doesn’t exist anywhere except for our education system, and that’s just un-American. If you’re doing your due diligence as a professor or any profession, you shouldn’t have to worry about termination.

Why do we need a protection like tenure if you’re doing your job as a professor and you’re educating kids like you’re supposed to be doing for real-world application and betterment of their life skills? Why do you need that?

Q. Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job.

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

Q. When you say that professors are teaching things that aren’t practical, do you mean the courses offered by the university or the lesson plans in the classroom?

A. It’s a mixture of both. We’ve seen out-of-control cost and the cost of the schooling is just astronomical. What my bill does, it lays out what the costs to that student is going to be to degree, what they are going to be able to make in that job market, what that degree even pertains to in that real-world job market. By having an inflated amount of classes that are required, and really don’t pertain to degrees addressing some of these issues of transparency, will help our education system as opposed to hurting it.

Students are getting degrees that have no real-world applicability, and then they’re stuck with all this monumental debt and then no job to pay it off. And it’s a disservice to our youth.

Q. It sounds like you think that universities should change the structure of certain majors, and the way degree maps are presented.

A. I know the bill has a tenure portion, but the main portion of this bill is to make it as transparent on the cost each student is going to be paying, the applicability of the degree, every degree that they offer, and what the prospective job market is for that degree. That’s what needs to be brought to light.

If you talk to these college students, they’re told these degrees are great and then they get out in the real world with no job that it even applies to. Then they find themselves having to go back to school trying to find something that hopefully they’ll be able to get a job with.

I think that tenure is a contributing factor at bringing down costs for students to where we have an efficient work force, but not inflated to where everyone is protected by tenure if they are not educating our kids in the fullest extent.

Q. Was this connected with the Mizzou protests?

A. I filed this bill long before the protests happened. [According to the Missouri House Journal, Mr. Brattin filed a similar version of this bill, House Bill 1165, in March 2015 without provisions to eliminate tenure. The University of Missouri at Columbia’s student and faculty protests took place in the fall of 2015.] This was brought to me by students and family members that have gotten degrees they were told was a great degree path and they get in the real world and can’t find a job that it really applied to. They’re working at a retail store for $12 an hour with $50,000 in debt. They feel like they were misled. That’s a disservice, especially with a public university, and we need to ensure that what those public dollars are going to, and if these students are going to be making a good investment.

Q. A lawmaker has filed a bill to eliminate tenure at public universities in Iowa. Is there a sentiment in statehouses nationally that tenure should be eliminated, or is this a coincidence?

A. We see this in the media, we see it all across the nation, we see it here in Missouri to where things aren’t being done according to their job description and students are having to pay for it. Taxpayers are having to pay for that, and it’s wrong.

We’ve got to make sure there is checks and balances. We want academic freedom. We want the building to have that freedom there, but you’re also there to carry out a job, and you have to do that job. Those protections that make it to where you can do whatever you want — you don’t have to worry about anything because you have that protection — I think it’s wrong. Our students deserve better, especially when they have this huge amount of debt they are going to have to pay back, and they may not end up with a real, applicable job by the degree they are being told will do that.

Q. Specifically, what do you mean "things aren’t being done" according to a professor’s job description?

A. Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. Because they have tenure, they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong. It’s an abuse of taxpayers dollars. If you want to go get grant money, or you want to be privately funded to do your endeavors of whatever, that’s fine. When you’re on the taxpayer dollar, I don’t think that’s a proper use of the taxpayers’ money.

Q. Let’s say a geologist at the University of Missouri is tenured and his responsibility entails research. Part of his job is to do research on publicly funded dollars. Do you think that should be publicly funded?

A. If that’s his job and he was hired by the university to do x, y, and z, and he’s performing x, y, and z, that’s what he was hired to do. It’s when these professors receive tenure that they are all of a sudden allowed this astronomical freedom to do whatever they wish, and they’re virtually untouchable, I’m sorry, it’s taxpayer dollars.

There should be accountability with whatever you’re doing. And it’s quite clear by the numbers that what’s being done is not at the best level and the highest echelon that it should be.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.

Editor’s Note (1/13/2017, 2:05 p.m.): The Chronicle has removed from this article a sentence in which Mr. Brattin inaccurately cited a statistic on the proportion of college graduates among the unemployed. A link to a two-year-old Newsweek article that Mr. Brattin supplied as evidence for his assertion has also been removed, as that article concerned the proportion of unemployed people who are members of the millennial generation, whether college graduates or not.

Correction (1/13/2017, 3:43 p.m.): This article originally misstated a provision of Mr. Brattin's bill. It would outlaw the awarding of tenure to faculty members hired after January 1, 2018; it would not outlaw the awarding of tenure after January 1, 2018, to faculty members hired before that date, nor would it affect tenure awarded before that date. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.