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Jac VerSteeg: FAU professor James Tracy's case helps anti-tenure forces

FAU professor James Tracy is creating an opening for Florida politicians who don’t like tenure and don’t like faculty unions. Because of Tracy’s case, tenure opponents could go on the attack and look good doing it.

Tracy is the Florida Atlantic University communications professor who claims the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is a hoax. Tracy got into a public feud with the parents of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook. The parents allege that Tracy has harassed them by, among other things, demanding to see proof that their son ever really was alive.

FAU has responded by firing Tracy, who also has claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shootings and other attacks were hoaxes. But firing tenured professors is not easy.

The Palm Beach Post reported on Jan. 6 that Tracy and his attorney, Thomas Johnson, plan to take “legal action” to overturn the university’s decision to fire him.

Tracy obtained his attorney with help from the FAU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, which notes on its Web page that it works to protect “academic freedom and tenure” and that it advocates for its members’ interests “before the Florida Legislature and education agencies.”

In describing itself, United Faculty of Florida explains that it is “the higher education local of the Florida Education Association, affiliated with the National Education Association, American Federation of teachers and AFL-CIO.”

In its story on Tracy’s firing, the South Florida Sun Sentinel said union President Robert Zoeller declined to say why the union thinks Tracy was wrongfully terminated. “There’s a lot of stuff people aren’t aware of that I can’t speak to right now,” he said. “If I did, it would violate Dr. Tracy’s rights.”

It will be fascinating to find out the “stuff” people aren’t aware of that could vindicate Tracy.

Unions of all kinds – police, fire, government workers, etc. – protect their members. That is what they do. Everybody deserves a defense to be sure the process is fair. But sometimes unions win when they shouldn’t.

It might not be a “win” for tenure if Tracy’s union prevails in this case. Tenure already is under some strain in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature in 2011 eliminated “tenure” for K-12 teachers. It wasn’t the same kind of tenure that college professors enjoy, but it was a form of job protection teachers valued.

There have been rumblings ever since that the governor and lawmakers would turn their sights next on college and university tenure. Last year the State College of Florida in Bradenton voted to eliminate tenure. Broward College has been mired in a tenure controversy. Florida Gulf Coast University does not offer tenure.

Erosion of tenure would be of serious concern in a state where the governor has been accused of banning underlings from talking about global warming. What other topics might be declared taboo to chill the speech of non-tenured faculty? Inability to award tenure undoubtedly would make recruiting top professors harder.

That doesn’t mean the Legislature would balk at ending tenure. Lawmakers could argue with some truth that allowing Tracy or his ilk to remain on staff does terrible damage to the state’s university system. The very fact the union is helping to defend Tracy puts an arrow in the quiver of tenure opponents. If Tracy were to win back his job as a tenured faculty member, the quiver would be well stocked.

The irony is that Tracy is being fired for views that outrage liberals in particular. His suggestion that these “hoaxes” were staged to increase pressure for gun control is infuriating to the left, which usually is the first faction to stick up for tenure and academic freedom.

How droll if the Florida Legislature – which has made clear it is second to none in its love for guns and the National Rifle Association – could say it gutted tenure because of Tracy’s wacko gun theories. “See,” they could say, “we’re not the gun nuts you think we are.”

If the union wants to defend tenure, defending Tracy is the wrong way to go about it.


Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.


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