Worried about professors’ political views, FAU trustees could vote on tenure

Faculty at Florida Atlantic University could have a tougher time earning tenure if their political beliefs and history don’t pass the muster of the school’s Republican-leaning Board of Trustees.

Right now, President John Kelly has the ultimate say in which professors get tenure, a coveted job protection. But the final authority would switch to the school’s Board of Trustees, under a proposal scheduled to be voted on next month.

It’s a role that trustees at several other state universities already have, and it’s created little controversy. But some faculty members are alarmed at the possible motivation of the FAU trustees, particularly new member Barbara Feingold, who was recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace her husband Jeffrey, whose term expired.

She told the trustees at an April meeting that she doesn’t think a proposed “short bio” of candidates is enough for the trustees to make a decision.

“One paragraph doesn’t tell us a lot about a professor, his viewpoints, his research, his political affiliations or potential donations,” among other factors, she said. “I’m concerned about tenure moving forward. I speak not just for myself but for the governor. I can’t think of any other position out there where people have a job for life.”

She noted that FAU struggled to fire James Tracy, an associate professor of communications who spread false conspiracy theories in interviews and on his personal blog that the Sandy Hook school shooting and other national tragedies may have been hoaxes. The university ended up firing him not for his comments, but because he refused to file required disclosures about his outside activities.

The efforts to control tenure have upset some faculty members, who see them as a threat to academic freedom. They note that the trustees are mostly political appointees. Eleven of the 13 members are appointed either by Gov. Ron DeSantis or the State University System’s Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The other members of the FAU Board are a faculty representative and the president of student government.

“It’s scary, just the idea that a political board would go in and make these academic decisions,” Frederick Hoffman, a long-time math professor at the university, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “It just seems like undue influence.”

Kevin Wagner, a political science professor, said the suggested policy could make it difficult to recruit top faculty.

“It’s very very important that this board never gives the impression to the faculty here or nationally we’re going to micromanage the selection of tenure or make it based on what their political beliefs are,” he told the trustees last month. “That’s a dangerous path to walk down.”

In an interview Monday, Feingold said she doesn’t plan to propose an end to tenure, despite her concerns. She said she understands that could put FAU at a disadvantage if all other major universities keep it.

But she questions whether there is a “diversity of thought” among the faculty making tenure decisions and those earning tenure, although she said she doesn’t have any proof the selections are unfair or politically biased. A committee at each college makes a recommendation, which is reviewed by a dean and the provost before going to the president. That process would continue under the proposed changes, but the Board of Trustees would have the ultimate say.

“When we’re putting someone in a position for life, we need to be very careful about who we’re offering it to,” she said.

The Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the proposal June 8. It was unclear from the meeting last month how much support there is for the proposal. Longtime trustee Bob Stilley voiced concern that Feingold’s efforts may go too far.

“We have the president and the provost that we delegate these duties to. We have to trust that they and the committee do the job, and if they don’t do the job we hold them accountable,” he said. “We’re the board. We don’t get involved in operating the university at that level.”

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