JEFFERSON CITY — Professors looking to get on the tenure track in Missouri could be derailed by a bill in the state legislature.
Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, has introduced legislation that would abolish the tenure system at all state universities.
“We’re at the point in this state that a professor can say anything they want publicly and do anything they want in a classroom but not be held liable because of the tenure laws,” Wright said. “If you have a bad employee, you ought to be able to get rid of them.”
Wright cited the case of Harris Mirkin, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who drew lawmakers’ ire three years ago. Mirkin sparked a controversy after he wrote that pedophilia should not always be called evil.
“Just because you become a professor at a university, you shouldn’t be able to carte blanche do anything you want without being held accountable,” Wright said. “If you’re taking public tax dollars, you’re held to a higher standard. You ought to be using those dollars to represent the values of the citizens you represent.”
Tenure is the practice of granting professors a lifetime contract that can be terminated only by retirement or a lengthy process that leads to firing.
The bill, HB 432, would outlaw the academic tradition, which stretches back to medieval times.
Wright’s proposed amendment to state law is only two lines long. If approved, the ban would take effect Jan. 1.
“I filed the bill to start the discussion,” Wright said. “I’d like to see the public universities in this state come to the legislature. Help us revise the laws at the very minimum. I want to hear from the education community how we can address these renegades.”
Tenure supporters say it ensures intellectual freedom, and they worry that without it professors might be unable to discuss unpopular opinions or research controversial subjects.
“No system is perfect, but I think it’s worked fairly well to allow universities and colleges to make those decisions,” said House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. “I question what the rationale is for proposing that the state now meddle in the university’s decision.”
According to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, 36 percent of full-time faculty at MU had tenure in fall 2003. Southwest Missouri State had the highest rate in Missouri at 65 percent.
UM system administrators have no position on the bill and declined to comment, spokesman Joe Moore said.
“This wouldn’t be necessary if the universities stepped up and did the right thing,” Wright said.