Last Tuesday, Republican legislators in the North Carolina state house of representatives proposed H.B. 715, the so-called “Higher Ed Modernization and Affordability Act.” Its actual purpose is to destabilize academic jobs and exert political surveillance over North Carolina’s sixteen public universities and 58 public community colleges. Last Thursday, the Texas state senate passed a similar bill, S.B. 18.
The North Carolina bill has several provisions, but the prospective elimination of tenure is getting the most attention. Under this provision, the tenure system would be eliminated for all new hires from July 2024 onward, and all future faculty would be employed at-will or on fixed-term contracts between one and four years long. The Texas bill eliminates tenure for all faculty who don’t yet have it, but allows universities to establish an “alternate system of tiered employment,” although what this means is unspecified.
First and foremost, the elimination of tenure is an attack on job security and an attack on non-monetary compensation. Faculty earn tenure through a high-stakes, multi-year process in which they are evaluated by their peers and by administrators on every aspect of their job. Tenure is an incredibly valuable job security protection — once you have tenure, you can only be fired under special circumstances, such as serious professional misconduct. This is the kind of job security that everyone should be able to enjoy. Tenure protects faculty from budget cuts, and the tenure system is also one pillar of faculty self-governance, in which academic decisions are made collectively via discussions among peers, rather than by corporatized administrators.
Both unions and professional organizations fight for more tenure-track jobs and opportunities to convert other jobs into tenurable positions specifically for this reason. All of these aspects make tenure terrible for a corporate university model in which maximizing budgetary flexibility is key. This model prefers to operate using a vast reserve army of adjunct faculty hired for a fraction of the price with minimal benefits on temporary contracts; it’s much easier to cut costs when a large portion of the workforce can be let go at the end of the semester. The governor of Texas named this concern specifically when he expressed his support for the Texas bill, calling tenure “costly and outdated.” The North Carolina bill specifically lists “major curtailment or elimination of a teaching, research, or public-service program” (e.g., eliminating a major or minor like Florida is trying to do with gender studies) as a reason that non-tenured faculty could be fired not only at the end of a fixed-term contract, but also mid-contract, suggesting that major curtailments or eliminations are on the horizon.
Another component of tenure is the principle of “academic freedom.” One of the advantages of tenure is that it protects faculty who want to work on controversial research topics. In Texas, the bill to eliminate tenure is part of the so-called “Critical Race Theory” panic, which is really a panic around teaching that structural racism exists at all. The bill has been linked to a resolution passed by faculty at the University of Austin asserting their right to study and teach about race, racism, and gender, although the attacks on faculty teaching about race go far beyond this particular resolution. Without the protections of tenure, faculty are less likely to research topics that may put them in the political crosshairs. These fears will also affect faculty working in trans studies, queer studies, gender studies, or other subject areas currently being targeted by the Right. The North Carolina bill includes provisions for evaluating the research output of faculty members and eliminating “areas of study” deemed “unnecessary or redundant.” Unlike H.B. 999 in Florida, this bill doesn’t specify any particular areas of study to be eliminated, but it does open the door a little wider. This component of the attack on tenure is directly related to the “culture war” being waged by the Right.
Part IV of the bill prohibits the use of both state and non-state funds held by colleges and universities for most kinds of student organizations, including “any activities related to political, social, or religious issues, including special interest clubs and other student organizations.” Typically, student clubs are funded via money appropriated to the student government, which then manages the funds. Under this bill, clubs for queer students, students of particular racial or ethnic groups, students of particular religions, and so on, would no longer be able to receive money for events through the usual means. While the bill would apply to all kinds of student organizations, not just those affiliated with the oppressed, the effects will nonetheless likely be unevenly felt — for instance, Young Republicans or Young Democrats are more likely to be able to acquire money from outside donor organizations than Students for Justice in Palestine. Christian student organizations are much more likely to find outside funding than organizations for students of religions that have a smaller presence in North Carolina. Small though it may seem, this provision to effectively take resources away from students is also an attack on political speech and part of the culture war.
Part V of the bill, pertaining to a “Unified Admissions Application,” seems innocuous enough at first, but in prohibiting schools from adding to or changing the standard admissions application, it also prohibits them from requiring diversity statements in admissions — a subject of much right-wing reporting after the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted to ban them just two months ago in February. While support for diversity statements is mixed among liberals and the Left, the Right consistently views them as a symptom of “wokeness.”
Part VI of the bill does seem to be innocuous, finding some savings for the state by maximizing the amount of dual credit that high school students taking college classes through a particular state program can receive. Part VII also attempts to find savings for the state, by “encouraging” colleges and universities to “take maximum advantage” of federal sources of funding. This, too, seems fine on its surface, but the provision specifically mentions ROTC scholarships. ROTC programs provide scholarships for students in exchange for enlisting in the military. Not coincidentally, the U.S. Army alone fell short of its recruitment target by 15,000 people in 2022, with the other branches of the military also failing to meet targets. If schools are encouraged to “take maximum advantage” of ROTC scholarships, this means deputizing university staff as military recruiters.
Parts VIII and IX foreshadow future cuts to North Carolina’s colleges and universities. Part VIII requires an “efficiency study” of administrative offices and personnel, including “individual positions that could be utilized more efficiently or inexpensively.” The study must result in a proposed “savings plan” — this means layoffs for some and workload increases for others. Part IX requires an evaluation of all “non-instructional research,” not in the aggregate, but on a project-by-project basis. What exactly counts as “non-instructional research” is left undefined by the bill, but this allows the statewide university administration to throttle at least some particular projects deemed unworthy of state funds. All of these curricular and administrative decisions ought to be made by the workers themselves in conversations with the students and communities they work with, not the Board of Governors — how would the Board know the needs of faculty, students, programs, or particular academic disciplines?
North Carolina is one of the Southern states that has so far been less aggressive in right-wing legislation in recent years compared to its neighbors. This is generally attributed to two factors. First, while gerrymandering keeps Republicans in control at the state level, North Carolina is considered a swing state at the federal level, with a more politically diverse voting population. Second, international backlash to the state’s 2016 “Bathroom Bill,” a precursor to today’s flurry of anti-trans legislation, negatively impacted the state to such an extent that legislators may be wary of pursuing similar policies. But now a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and a bill to ban trans youth from competing in sports are both seeing movement in the NC legislature as well, and there are several other bills aimed at making cuts to schools in various ways besides this tenure bill. The legislators proposing these bills and moving them forward are doing so with 2024 election campaigns in mind.
In any case, faculty at North Carolina colleges and universities should begin organizing against both this anti-tenure bill and all other bills attacking their jobs and the learning conditions of their students. While public sector collective bargaining is illegal in North Carolina, so there aren’t pre-existing faculty unions, faculty can follow in the footsteps of their K-12 colleagues, who held a wildcat teachers’ strike in 2018, and a wildcat bus drivers’ strike in 2021. They can also follow the lead of graduate student workers and housekeeping staff at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University, who are organizing for better wages, the elimination of student fees, and the right to collective bargaining. In this fight, they deserve the solidarity of educators and workers across the country.