UT's Powers Calls for Rethinking How Tenure is Used

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers at a UT System Board of Regents meeting in Austin on Dec. 12, 2013.
University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers at a UT System Board of Regents meeting in Austin on Dec. 12, 2013.

Saying that the current process of giving tenure to university professors could have a negative impact on aspiring scholars, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers on Monday called for rethinking such long-term agreements with professors.

During his state of the university address, Powers noted that tenure has served an important role and is a necessary tool when competing for the best faculty. "But we need to be realistic by recognizing that it also has costs," he added.

"It is a form of institutional leverage, just like debts or any long-term contract, that locks an institution into a long-term arrangement that might be out of kilter with the needs of a changing student body and changing research needs," he said. "Coupled with the federal law that we can't have a mandatory retirement age, it can present a barrier for aspiring scholars to embark on teaching careers."

The president was making the broader point that a university's resources needed to be deployed strategically in a way that aligns with its teaching and research goals. He suggested that tenure should be used when competition for faculty is particularly acute and in areas that are particularly research-centric.

"My point here is not that I have the answer," he said. "My point is that we can't shy away from an issue even as sacred as how we use tenure. We need to lead the way by implementing everything we do in light of the purposes we claim it promotes."

 

Powers also used his speech to offer other ideas to consider, including giving students credit for leadership activities.

"If we aspire to instill leadership and ethics, why don't we give credit — one of our most important inputs — for experiences in leadership, such as in student government or other organizations, in internships of even being [teaching assistants] in signature courses or flipped classrooms?"

He also called for considering changes to rules about faculty teaching loads and degree requirements in an effort to stoke creativity on campus.

"How do we count team teaching, or structure learning experiences that don't fit easily into 50-minute, three-day-a-week segments?" he said. "We need to give our faculty more flexibility to be creative."

Monday’s state of the university address is Powers’ last as president, a position he has held since 2006. After University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa demanded in July that Powers agree to an October resignation or risk being fired, Powers proposed that he step down as UT-Austin president in June 2015. Cigarroa accepted the plan.

Cigarroa, who is stepping down this year, had cited “a long history of issues with communication, responsiveness and a willingness to collaborate” for his decision to seek Powers’ resignation.

The relationship between the university and the system continues to be a bit uneasy. Following allegations of undue political influence, an external investigation commissioned by the system is currently being conducted into admissions practices at UT-Austin.

In past state of the university addresses, Powers has occasionally touched on governance issues that have plagued his relationship with the University of Texas System administrators and regents. In 2011, he famously referred to the UT community as "a house divided about our fundamental mission and character."

But Powers steered clear of the controversies Monday. Rather, he took the opportunity to applaud and express gratitude to the UT System regents for tapping into their endowment more strategically.

As for the university's own strategy regarding how it will use its resources, Powers also announced a "Faculty Investment Initiative." The details of the plan were not discussed.

The president said the initiative would be led by the provost, who intends to provide more information later in the semester. Though, Powers did indicate that would involve some strategic hires, a focus on graduate stipends in certain areas and "broader salary support."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

 

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