June 6, 2023
Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,
Many of you have been following the actions and deliberations of our Legislature closely during the past weeks and months, and I appreciate the concerns many of you have expressed, particularly on the issues of tenure and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Our University leadership is continuing to assess and understand the full impact of the legislation that passed and will likely be signed by Gov. Abbott during the next two weeks.
First, I am pleased with the outcome of SB 18, which affirms tenure at Texas universities. We respect the Legislature’s thoughtful deliberation about the merits of tenure, which recognized many of the strengths of the current system and the role that it plays in ensuring excellence among our faculty.
Tenure is about protecting the academic freedom of our faculty so we can meet our shared and essential mission of advancing knowledge through free inquiry, research, and publishing and disseminating our work. It is not, nor has it ever been, about protecting the very few who do not meet their obligations or who engage in serious misconduct. The bill confirms that due process protections for tenure remain. And we remain confident in our ability to recruit and retain top talent and fulfill our constitutional mandate to be a “university of the first class.”
Many of the current mechanisms and components of our tenure system are guided by previous state legislation, including the rigorous standards that faculty members must meet to earn tenure, and the accountability of the evaluation process that protects the integrity of continued tenure, as well as our teaching and research. Not every Texas university’s policies toward tenure are starting from the same point, and some systems and campuses will face greater changes than others in response to the bill. It is worth noting that many of the bill’s concepts already exist in our current policies. As the UT System makes necessary policy adjustments, UT Austin will inevitably need to adjust our policies in response. These adjustments will not materially change protections of our current system.
Whereas we have clarity on the future of tenure, the bill requiring changes to DEI initiatives in public universities (SB 17) is more complex. The bill’s protections for our teaching and research are immediately apparent. We are actively working to understand and assess the rest of our landscape, the contours of the new legal framework, and how the UT System will implement its oversight under the new legislation. While I can imagine there is uncertainty and anxiety regarding the future, I ask for your patience as we begin this work and await further guidance based on UT System policy later this summer. The changes required by SB 17 must be made by Jan. 1, 2024.
What will not change is our University leadership’s commitment to attracting, supporting and retaining exceptionally talented staff, faculty and students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and fostering and celebrating diversity across our community. Within the scope of the new law, we will remain focused on making sure the very best students want to come to UT. And, when they arrive, they feel like they belong, they encounter world-class teachers and researchers, they are supported, and they know they can succeed. Ultimately, we will prepare them to go on to do great things and change the world.
The tenure and DEI bills have garnered much attention across higher education, at the risk of overshadowing other issues and opportunities colleges and universities face. We are grateful for the considerable support provided by the State of Texas and for the Legislature’s continued efforts to help its flagship university propel lives and society forward. There will be clear signs of this support in the months and years to come, from our innovations in semiconductors, nuclear power, marine science and space research, to the increased support of foster youths and enabling us to offer merit raises this coming fall.
Thank you for all that you do to inspire our students and create an exceptional education and research experience across our University. Our faculty and staff are the driving force of our impact and the foundation of our excellence.