Texas Tech University business professor James Wetherbe’s fight against tenure began as a quiet, personal stance.
He had been splitting time between the University of Minnesota and the University of Memphis in the 1990s when one of his deans gave him an ultimatum: Commit to Minneapolis full-time or give up tenure.
“I said, ‘Give me a hard decision,'" Wetherbe recalled. "I never wanted tenure in the first place.”
Two decades later, his fight has come to Texas — and gone public.
When he arrived at Texas Tech in 2000, Wetherbe turned down tenure — an employment policy that is sacred among the faculties of major universities. The concept is more than a century old, and it's designed to make it hard to fire professors who have previously proved their worth. The idea is to protect academics so they can express unpopular opinions or pursue controversial research.
But Wetherbe is a rare professor who believes that tenure is bad for higher education. Academic freedom is rarely at risk these days, he said, and tenure is more often used to protect bad teachers. In recent years, he has relentlessly promoted that opinion, and has sued his school twice in federal court. He says he has been punished by his school for his stance — which Texas Tech vehemently denies.
“I am trying to expose tenure,” Wetherbe said. “It is not really about academic freedom.”
Wetherbe has some experience with the concept. He accepted tenure early in his career as an information technology professor, but said he always felt uncomfortable with it. He said he didn't want that crutch when he arrived at Texas Tech — a school he says he loves, and where he received his MBA and Ph.D. His contract is renewed year-to-year, he said, so his bosses can fire him if they don't like the job he's doing.
“I do a better job without having tenure,” he said.
In the early years of that arrangement, Wetherbe says, he thrived and gained a reputation for thinking outside the box. He utilized a “role-playing type of learning in his classes,” so students were evaluated based on how well they could discuss or write about business concepts. Outside of the classroom, he wrote several books and says he brought in hefty research dollars. In 2006, he was named a distinguished Tech alumnus.
But he began to clash with the school's leadership in 2012, when he was nominated for its highest teaching honor, the Paul Whitfield Horn Professorship.
That nomination was a thrill at first, Wetherbe said. But it eventually led to a lawsuit. Wetherbe claimed that a committee recommended approving him for the honor, but that administrators pulled his name from consideration at the last minute. He said he was later told that tenure was a requirement for the job.
Wetherbe was also being considered for a job as dean of Texas Tech’s college of business at the time, according to the suit. He said he made his stance on tenure clear during an interview with the search committee and, according to his lawsuit, was recommended as a finalist by the committee. He said he never received a follow-up interview.
In court documents, Wetherbe quotes a deposition from the former provost, Bob Smith, in which Wetherbe's lack of tenure was listed as a reason for him not getting the job. The provost also noted that he "did not agree with some of [Wetherbe's] philosophies on being a leader of a college."
In his suit, Wetherbe claimed he had a First Amendment right to oppose tenure — and that his school couldn't punish him for it. But that case proved difficult to make. Wetherbe was seeking an administrative role, and his opinion on tenure was the opposite of the school's policy. It may have been a stretch for the court to rule that the school had to hire an administrator who disagreed with its academic philosophy.
Texas Tech spokesman Chris Cook said school officials couldn’t discuss the case since it’s a pending legal matter. But the school has said in the past that Wetherbe wasn't retaliated against. The university argued the case should be dismissed. An appeals court agreed, ruling that First Amendment protections don't apply to government workers speaking out specifically about their jobs. Wetherbe appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court but was denied last month.
The decision was a blow to Wetherbe's argument. He has claimed that tenure is unnecessary to protect academic freedom — and that the First Amendment is sufficient. But his own First Amendment claim didn't hold up in court.
Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be a strong sentiment on the Texas Tech campus to defend him.
Richard Meek, a music professor who has for years held leadership roles in the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said tenure is popular on campus.
"It strikes at the very nature of what it means to provide a real university education," he said.
That view is held on most other campuses, too. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, has encountered fierce resistance from state and national education groups for his efforts to remove tenure protections from state law.
Wetherbe has shown no signs of relenting. Part of his case is now being heard in state court. And he has filed another federal suit, alleging further retaliation since 2012.
Cook, the university spokesman, said Texas Tech is confident that it will prevail again. Wetherbe said he feels good about his chances, too. But either way, he's pleased to be putting up a fight.
"I am trying to help higher education," he said. "I think this is really shining a light."
Disclosure: Texas Tech University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.