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PROFESSOR TENURE POISED FOR LEGISLATIVE COMEBACK

By LILLY ROCKWELL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

PENSACOLA, Fla., September 9, 2011......Eliminating or changing how professors are awarded tenure, a longer-term contract that carries more job security, is likely to surface again this legislative session.

At a meeting of college presidents Friday, college officials were briefed on the law surrounding "continuing contracts," or tenure, in the expectation that it will again be in legislative crosshairs.

"We do know it is going to come up," said former state Rep. Joe Pickens, now president of St. Johns River State College, urging other college presidents to be aware that an effort to eliminate tenure contracts at Florida colleges is likely to resurface after it was defeated last legislative session.

Examining tenure is also reportedly an interest of Gov. Rick Scott's, said Katherine Johnson, President of Pasco-Hernando Community College and head of the Florida College's Council of Presidents. She said Scott is asking potential appointees to university and college governing boards their stance on tenure contracts.

A controversial bill to eliminate continuing contracts within the Florida College System was dropped last legislative session after the Association of Florida Colleges Council of Presidents voted to oppose the measure.

But this year, college presidents are signaling a willingness to work with lawmakers on a possible compromise.

"If we just tell the Legislature we are not interested in discussing tenure, than the Legislature will do what the Legislature does, and that is just pass something and say 'This is what you have now,' " Pickens said.

He urged the other college presidents that working with lawmakers could be fruitful.

"We should advocate on behalf of our faculty," he said.

Tenure is a longtime academic tradition. At the university level, universities typically offer tenure to professors after a rigorous six-year process. Professors that meet a university's standards on teaching, research and service are awarded tenure contracts with no expiration date and cannot be fired without just cause.

For professors, tenure is valued because it protects academic freedom, permitting research and discussion of unpopular or controversial topics without reprisal.

Colleges that offer associates and bachelor's degrees also award tenured contracts, but the process is short – typically about three years – and emphasizes teaching ability over research.

The push to eliminate or change the tenure system in Florida is linked to a similar effort in Florida's K-12 public schools. This year, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that eliminated long-term contracts and pay tied to length of time teaching, putting all teachers on annual contracts and linking their salaries to student test scores.

Scott has shown a keen interest in ushering in higher education reforms similar to ones championed by Gov. Rick Perry in Texas. As part of those reforms, tenure would be based more on teaching evaluations and student satisfaction than research. It also provides incentives for tenured professors to teach more classes.

Professors are particularly wary of changes to tenure. Ed Mitchell, the executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, said if tenure is eliminated or dramatically changed, it will drive talented professors away from Florida

"The entire idea of stripping tenure is like putting a giant sign at the Florida border that says: 'The best and brightest need not apply,' " Mitchell said. "Nobody is going to come here without tenure."

He added that there is a misconception that tenure means a professor cannot be fired.

"I have people fired every year with tenure," Mitchell said. "Tenure means you can't be fired without just cause."

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the sponsor of the bill during last year's legislative session that eliminated college tenure contracts, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.