A bill introduced in the House on Monday would bar public universities and colleges from offering tenure to faculty members, upending a long-standing tradition that has guaranteed professors lifetime employment.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said half of the state budget comes from federal dollars. Given the size of the federal deficit, that can't continue and when budgets have to shrink, universities are going to need every option available.
"I want universities to have the flexibility," he said. "I would hate to have to cut a young, energetic Ph.D." to save a tenured professor who is "barely there."
Herrod's bill would not affect those professors who currently have tenure only those who might be eligible in the future.
The tenure system has come under question nationally for protecting deadwood on college campuses.
"Most of us are at-will employees. We compete every day," Herrod said. "I think it's going to leave a more competitive environment. … All they have to do is prove they're the best."
But critics of HB485 say it would seriously erode the ability of Utah schools, particularly the research institutions like the University of Utah and Utah State University, to compete for faculty.
"This is something that we oppose simply because it's difficult, maybe not impossible, but difficult to attract more high-quality faculty without tenure," said Holly Braithwaite, spokeswoman for the Utah Commissioner of Higher Education.
She said it is the standard at universities across the country and the Utah schools need to be able to compete. She said about half of the faculty at Utah's public colleges and universities have tenure.
"There is a diversity of opinion about tenure out there," said David Pershing, the U. vice president for academic affairs. "We can't eliminate tenure without wrecking the university in the overall higher education structure in the United States."
Most, if not all, of the U.'s recently hired USTAR faculty abandoned tenured positions to come to Utah, according to Pershing, and none would have come if administrators could not guarantee them tenure.
"We would not be able to attract top faculty if we can't offer the potential of tenure when all the other schools do. It's a competitive issue," Pershing said.
Brian Maffly contributed to this report.
The Higher Education Tenure bill would:
Prohibit an institution of higher education from offering an individual a tenure-track position on or after July 1, 2011.
Prohibit an institution of higher education from offering academic tenure to an individual who is not already in a tenure-track position on July 1, 2011.