Discussion, no vote on bill mandating how academics in Kentucky would be evaluated

By: - January 23, 2024 1:10 pm

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, shown testifying in a committee last year, has proposed House Bill 228, which mandates a new review process for faculty and administrators at Kentucky’s public universities. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

The Kentucky House Education Committee discussed but did not vote on a bill Tuesday that would allow public universities and colleges to remove faculty who fall short of “productivity requirements.” 

Rep. James Tipton, the Republican chairman of the committee and the sponsor of House Bill 228, said the agenda was changed Monday night. Originally, the committee was supposed to vote on the bill Tuesday morning but instead the measure was put up only for discussion.. 

Tipton, of Taylorsville, previously said his proposal “has nothing to do with ending tenure” and described it as a “post-tenure review bill.” 

The bill raised concerns from the public ahead of the committee meeting. Tipton and other committee members said they received hundreds of emails, including from university faculty, questioning the bill. A union official representing two-year college employees warned the measure is “a Trojan Horse attempt to destroy higher education in Kentucky” that would repel scholars and researchers from working in the state.

If the General Assembly passes it, the bill would require the boards of Kentucky’s public universities and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to establish a process to review faculty’s “performance and productivity” every four years. Faculty members who do not meet the requirements in their review could be removed from their position “regardless of status.” 

The chairman told the committee his bill was about bringing uniformity to Kentucky’s public higher education. Tipton said his children, who have recently earned degrees largely had a positive experience in college but did have some professors who were “very difficult.” His goal is to “improve faculty” at public universities through regular performance reviews. 

“The big word that everyone wants to talk about is ‘tenure,’” Tipton said. “Although the bill does not mention the word ‘tenure,’ it does impact tenure and what is tenure? I know it’s a very difficult process for faculty members to get, sometimes it takes several years, but tenure is not a job for life.” 

No one besides Tipton presented information on the bill to the committee Tuesday. 

In his remarks, Tipton noted the state spends $1 billion a year to fund public universities and colleges in Kentucky and said the investment is important to educate the future workforce. He said in response to questions from committee members one university president has expressed support of the bill to him though Tipton did not name the president. He said he thought he would have heard from the other presidents if they had objections.

Tipton also emphasized that boards would establish their university’s performance review requirements. When asked about possible issues with accreditation requirements, Tipton said he was unaware of any but would ask the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits many universities in Kentucky.

Tina Bojanowski (Photo by LRC Public Information)

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, said she was concerned professors could be held directly responsible for their students’ grades as the bill is written. 

“Depending on what the performance requirements are, whether it’s to have so and so many people pass the class with a certain score, there are a lot of things out of your realm of control,” she said. 

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, noted that state law already provides comprehensive grounds for removing academics who are doing a poor job serving students. “I think this bill casts suspicion on hundreds or thousands of high performing professors when really we might need to look at presidents or deans or boards who are not enforcing the current strong statute,” Raymond said. 

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, said he appreciated the added accountability proposed in the bill and said he would be open to requiring legislatively-mandated reviews of faculty annual rather than every four years as the bill proposes.

Katy Varner, the executive director of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360 which represents KCTCS employees, wrote in an email to the Kentucky Lantern ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the college system does annual faculty performance reviews. Varner said a section of the bill regarding removal of faculty for not meeting performance standards is “extremely ambiguous.” 

“Faculty who have tenure can be fired for cause but not for a ‘whimsy’ or some one’s idea of whatever they define as ‘productivity.’ This language is a Trojan Horse attempt to destroy higher education in Kentucky,” Varner said. “The language about a college board being able to hire and fire faculty again is an attempt to demote college presidents across the Commonwealth. 

“This bill means to be mean. It is meant to control higher education; it is meant to control faculty and control free speech. It will end up hurting this Commonwealth’s academic stature in the United States. It will cost Kentucky money. No researchers will want to work here; excellent students will choose to go elsewhere. Who wants to go to a second or third rate school(?)”

Among emails sent to the committee ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, one from a faculty member questioned if they could be removed based on a “difference in ideology,” Tipton said. 

“That is not in this legislation. That is not the intent of this legislation,” he added. 

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.