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New legislation seeks to abolish tenure at state schools

February 07, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Professors looking to get on the tenure track in Missouri could be derailed by a new bill in the state Legislature.

Rep. Mark Wright 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," said Wright, a Republican from Springfield. "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 blache 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 only be terminated by firing or retirement.

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 on Jan. 1, 2006.

"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."

Supporters of the tenure system say it's necessary to ensure intellectual freedom. They worry that without the security tenure provides 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, a Democrat from Columbia, home of the University of Missouri. "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 Missouri-Columbia had tenure in fall 2003. Southwest Missouri State had the highest rate in Missouri at 65 percent.

The University of Missouri does not have a position on the bill and declined comment, said Spokesman Joe Moore.

"This wouldn't be necessary if the universities stepped up and did the right thing," Wright said.