Going Once, Going Twice, Sold to the Highest Bidder!

Christopher Hepburn, PhD
4 min readMay 18, 2023

National Security at Risk as Texas Tenure Debate Threatens Scientific Expertise and Strengthens Hostile Governments

Underlay image by Adam Thomas on Unsplash.

One of the most important aspects of national security has been gravely neglected in the raging discussion about Texas’ academic tenure. Governments and universities from nations with whom the United States has tense relations are actively courting professors with advanced degrees in science and technology. If tenure is reduced or eliminated, it would simply increase the temptation for these outstanding people to leave, which might strengthen adversarial or potentially adversarial regimes and pose a serious threat to national security. The serious effects attacking tenure could have on the security and well-being of the country have received little attention in the debate surrounding it in Texas’ public colleges.

It is unsettling to see that the planned tenure changes in Texas take their cues from the practices of Texas A&M University, and not UT-Austin. If Texas claims to value merit, UT-Austin has been ranked more highly than Texas A&M, by many entities. In 2023, Times Higher Education put UT-Austin #50 in the world and Texas A&M #181. U.S. News and World Report made UT Austin its 38th choice for “Best National University”; Texas A & M came in at #67. Even the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), more commonly known as the Shanghai rankings, from the Graduate School of Education (formerly the Institute of Higher Education) of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, places UT-Austin ahead of Texas A&M. This mismatch calls into serious question the veracity of such a model, a measure that would likely jeopardize academic achievement, to say nothing of national security.

To attract and retain top-tier talent in Texas public universities, the preservation of tenure is not only crucial but rooted in a rich historical context. Originating from a time when scholars were persecuted for challenging dogmatic practices in Europe, tenure emerged as a safeguard against intellectual suppression. Its significance was further underscored in response to the oppressive Nazi regimes during World War II. The academic tenure of today remains an indispensable element of academic freedom and job security. The presence of prominent academic members in these schools promotes research, innovation, and technical developments that strengthen the nation’s defense and competitive edge, all of which support national security. Furthermore, these researchers are frequently in high demand from international colleges, especially those with competing interests or antagonistic agendas, due to their experience. It is important to recognize that humanities professors are also highly valuable, as demonstrated by our own government’s recruitment of humanities PhDs for roles in intelligence and national security.

Even if Texas does not value its top researchers, foreign governments do. To name but one case, though there are others: the 2020 detention of a Texas professor and NASA researcher, who was accused of crimes connected to China’s “talents” program, provides a startling illustration of the threats that educational institutions confront. It has been determined that the Chinese government uses this initiative as a channel to entice international talent and profit from intellectual property.

Tenure does not protect bad actors in cases like this. Tenure does, however, offer committed researchers the incentive to stay in this country, and to enjoy a legacy of academic freedom that is as all-American as apple pie and democracy. Take away that protection, and faculty may just find themselves wooed elsewhere.

Governor Abbot has made no secret of his desire to have more Texas universities achieve R1 (Research University with Highest Research Activity) status, stating

My goal as Governor when I first took the oath of office in 2015 was to double the number of Texas universities ranked as Tier One.

The state continues to allot billions to that effort in the form of the Texas University Fund.

But Texas cannot sustain any hope of being “the new frontier for innovation, research, and discovery” if it does not afford its faculty the same protections and rewards that peer institutions do. And the pain is likely to come first to the more newly minted R1s, like Texas Tech University, long before similar consequences research Austin and College Station.

It is crucial to underline that the tenure debate’s repercussions go well beyond academia and academic freedom. Achieving global competitiveness, technical advancement, and national security are all at risk. Texas’ tenure system should not be weakened at the risk of losing the specialists who contribute to the state’s scientific and technological accomplishments. This unexpected outcome would provide hostile nations full access to priceless intellectual capital, further escalating the problems the United States has with regard to national security.

Legislators, university officials, and all other stakeholders must grasp the seriousness of the situation as the tenure debate rages on. Texas must place a high priority on safeguarding its scientific and technology expertise in order to maintain academic quality and preserve broader national interests. It would be a terrible mistake with serious consequences for the security and prosperity of the country to ignore the serious national security threats posed by tenure changes. To solve this pressing problem, immediate attention and firm action are required.

As Texas weighs the fate of tenure, remember: do we want to be a state that boldly defends its intellectual treasures or a state that inadvertently hosts a talent auction for adversaries, shouting, “Going once, going twice, sold to the highest bidder!” The answer should be evident: Texas, my fellow Texans, it is time to protect our brilliance and fortify our walls of knowledge before they crumble under the weight of missed opportunities and compromised security.



Christopher Hepburn, PhD

Author, critic, and public intellectual professing East Asian history, art, & culture at the University of Southern California. Also very pale and awkward.