Tenure Discussion Spotlights Florida Gulf Coast University

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, September 27, 2011 -

Gov. Rick Scott's interest in higher education reform has ignited a contentious debate over the use of tenure at Florida's universities and colleges.

As lawmakers ponder whether to revisit a proposal to change or eliminate tenure at Florida's colleges and universities, one public university has the enviable position of being largely unaffected by tenure changes.

That's because Fort Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast University doesn't offer tenure.

In a rare decision for a public university, FGCU decided not to offer tenure to new faculty when it opened in 1997, though a small handful of faculty brought on from the defunct University of South Florida at Fort Myers were given tenure. "We do not currently award tenure to anyone," said Provost Ron Toll.

The university's unusual policy to not grant tenure, and instead offer rolling three-year contracts, offers lawmakers a glimpse into how a tenure-free university would operate. Both administrators and faculty say the system offers some benefits and drawbacks, and wouldn't be ideal for top tier universities with an intense research focus.

Tenure, a long-term contract that makes it difficult to fire a professor without a good reason, is cherished by faculty because it protects academic freedoms and provides job security. But it has come under fire in recent years as a productivity-killer that prevents administrators from firing bad professors.

In his first year as governor, Scott has taken an interest in making significant changes to higher education.

Tenure has emerged as a focal point for Scott, and is reminiscent of parts of a set of higher education reform suggestions initially promoted by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Many of those suggestions focus on improving faculty productivity, with an emphasis on teaching and tying student evaluations to tenure.

This wouldn't be the first time Florida politicians have tinkered with teacher contracts. This year, Scott and the Republican-backed Florida Legislature pushed to end long-term contracts at Florida's public K-12 schools.

A Scott spokesman said Tuesday the governor merely wants to begin a discussion about tenure.

"He has not announced his legislative priorities yet, but it is definitely an issue he's interested in," said the spokesman, Lane Wright. "He wants to get the discussion going on a lot of these ideas that might improve (higher education.)"

Though no specific legislative proposal has been filed yet for next year, a bill to eliminate tenure at Florida's public colleges was submitted last legislative session but didn't get very far. College officials are preparing for another tenure-related bill to be filed this year and have signaled a willingness to negotiate on tenure topics.

Toll, the FGCU provost, said it is "healthy" for lawmakers to have a debate on tenure.

At Florida Gulf Coast, he said the decision to not offer tenure stemmed from a desire to maintain flexibility for a brand-new school. By not having tenure, the university could more easily kill unpopular degree programs.

But he did not advocate for abandoning tenure at other state universities, such as the University of Florida.

"It was certainly easier to begin this way than to potentially take an institution that has been ingrained in the tenure system for 50 or 100 years or more and flick the light switch from tenure to non-tenure," Toll said. "I can see that might be a difficult thing to do."

The process for obtaining tenure can be daunting, professors say. Typically, it takes about six years to receive a tenure contract, and only professors who meet teaching, research and other benchmarks get them. Unions representing faculty say tenure does not mean a job for life, but does carry with it certain protections that make it difficult to fire a professor without a good reason.

Faculty often say the main value in having tenure is being able to write about, talk about in class or research controversial or sensitive topics without fear of retribution.

Toll said one advantage to the Florida Gulf Coast system is it takes the fretting over tenure out of the process. "It puts people in year one under the exact same kinds of protections that any of our senior faculty would have," he said. It also eliminates the frightening prospect of not being awarded tenure, which not only can cost a professor his or her job, but can be a black mark in academia, making it difficult to land other jobs at other universities.

One professor who works at Florida Gulf Coast University but is one of the few who has tenure, said the three-year contracts have not impeded academic freedom at the school.

Madelyn Isaacs, a professor of counseling and a former union president for the university, said non-tenure contracts work at the university is because it has a less intense research focus.

The university tends to attract a professor that might lean more toward teaching then research, she said.

"We have a system that is working relatively well," Isaacs said. But not offering tenure does discourage some professors from applying for jobs and can be an incentive for others to leave, she said.

"We don't get every qualified faculty member who wants to look for a job," Isaacs said. "I'm not suggesting we don't have quality faculty, we do, but there are times our application pools are much smaller."

But Isaacs strongly objected to the notion that all universities abandon tenure.

"The tenure and research process is important," Isaacs said. "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

The use of tenure has been on the decline since the 1960s, said Greg Scholtz, the director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at the American Association of University Professors.

Only about 30 percent of faculty in the United States have tenure, he said. That count includes community colleges, which have lower rates of tenured faculty, and for-profit and private institutions, which often don't have tenure.

"Most people don't understand tenure," Scholtz said. "They think it's to protect the lazy and incompetent. Our view is if people are incompetent, they should be fired."

For some universities, he said, not providing tenure offers a distinct economic edge.

"The advantage of what we call contingent facultyis they can easily be gotten rid of," he said. "It's a cheaper form of labor and allows more flexibility if you want to get rid of program or department."

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