Proposed legislative bills would make suing student grounds for faculty tenure revocation

Skye Seipp

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 20 issue of The Daily Texan.

Trigger Warning: This story contains discussion of pedophilia and sexual harassment. 

State lawmakers are considering two bills this legislative session that would change how tenured professors are evaluated and what can cause revocation of tenure. 

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 1623, which would allow public institutions to possibly revoke tenure or otherwise discipline a faculty member if they file a civil lawsuit against a student, regardless of whether the suit is dismissed or not. 

The legislation was prompted by UT classics professor Thomas Hubbard, who sued three students last year for libel after they said Hubbard advocated for pedophilia and called for his removal in fall 2019, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan. Hubbard was not found to be in violation of University policies, according to previous reporting by the Texan. 

Bettencourt said at a Senate Committee on Higher Education meeting that it was “abhorrent” a professor would file a lawsuit without first dealing with the situation internally. 

“Clearly, the University is going to have to be the adult in the room because obviously there hasn’t been one up to this time,” Bettencourt said. “(Students) are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend their free speech rights when tenure grants it for the professor, and that’s what this bill is attempting to get to.”

Hubbard said in an email he tried to solve the issue through the University multiple times, but nothing was done.

University spokesperson J.B. Bird did not respond to a request for comment regarding the lawsuit prior to publication. Bird declined to comment on the Senate bills. 

Archie Holmes, executive vice chancellor of the UT System, testified at the Senate hearing that 20 faculty members have had tenure revoked over the past five years across the entire UT System. There are about 5,800 tenured faculty members in the UT System, Holmes said. UT-Austin has 1,627 tenured professors, said Eliska Padilla, UT-Austin’s issues and communications manager.  

Each institution in the UT System has a “wide variety of ways for dispute resolution” that students, staff and faculty can implore, Holmes said when addressing students being sued. 

Sarah Blakemore, the first student sued by Hubbard, is the daughter of Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore, according to reporting by The Texas Tribune. Sarah declined to comment. Allen has worked for Bettencourt before, but Bettencourt denied that the bill was written as a favor to Allen, according to The Tribune. 

Bettencourt’s office did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication. 

Zoé Thomas, a graduate student and assistant instructor, and government senior Hollie Green, who were both sued for libel in December, both declined to comment. 

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Grandbury, said during the committee hearing that he wanted to work with Bettencourt on the language of the bill. 

“I’d want to be very careful about restricting access to the courts, simply because you’re a professor and creating a perverse incentive with the student body or the students that come to that professor,” Birdwell said. 

Senate Bill 1159, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would change the number of years between tenured faculty evaluation from six to four years. In addition, public institutions could revoke tenure if the faculty member has been involved in “sexual harassment, fiscal malfeasance, plagiarism, or conduct involving moral turpitude.” 

Creighton did not respond to requests to comment prior to publication. Both bills were left pending in committee.