Education

Bill to abolish tenure in Iowa 'on life support'

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A bill introduced last year to abolish tenure at Iowa’s public universities did not pass out of a legislative subcommittee that took it up Thursday — leaving it stalled, for now.

At least one member of the three-person subcommittee — Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville — was dead set against the proposal, which has been pitched as allowing Board of Regents institutions to more easily fire professors.

“I think we need to strengthen those universities, and to do something like get rid of tenure, that would really weaken us,” Dvorskey said.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, went nowhere in the last legislative session after its introduction Jan. 10, 2017. The hope had been for traction in a newly GOP-controlled Legislature on an issue Zaun had raised before, arguing regent schools can’t get rid of bad professors.

“I’m hoping that at least we have the conversation on this,” he said after debuting the measure last year.

Dvorsky said he’s all for conversation — especially in that it highlights processes already in place to weed out unproductive faculty and educates Iowans on the importance of tenure. But, Dvorsky said, he doesn’t perceive much of a future for the tenure-abolishing measure.

“It’s hard to say anything is ever dead in the Legislature,” he said. “But it’s certainly on life support.”

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Another subcommittee member, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, voiced concerns that tenure separates professors into a special class with special privileges. But, to garner his support, the measure would need amendments, and Board of Regents staffers alleviated many of his concerns Thursday.

“No one has signed it at this point,” he said.

Zaun, in fighting for his bill, argued faculty sabbaticals have gotten out of hand, degrading the value of an education for students who have been paying increasingly higher tuition. Regent officers reported a small fraction of professors take sabbaticals every year, and many of their efforts while breaking from teaching bring back millions to their respective universities — far outpacing the costs of letting them take a teaching hiatus.

When Zaun suggested some faculty show up on the first day of class and then leave the rest of the semester to a teaching aid, UI Associate Provost for Faculty Kevin Kregel said, “I’ve never heard of a faculty member walking into a course the first day and then passing a course off to a TA.”

“We would not allow that to happen if we heard about it,” Kregel said. “That does not happen.”

“It does,” Zaun said, to which board staff requested names.

“It should not happen, and if it does, tell us,” regent State Relations Officer Keith Saunders said.

Although Zaun acknowledged passage of his proposal is an “uphill climb,” he expressed appreciation for the conversation.

“I’m hearing from a lot of parents that are concerned about what’s going on at our universities,” Zaun said. “I wouldn’t have filed the bill if I didn’t want it to move forward.”

The conversation comes at a time of deep cuts in state funding for Iowa’s regent universities and proposals from the campuses to hike tuition rates in response — in hopes of having enough resources to retain and attract top faculty.

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No lobbyists have supported Zaun’s legislation — 17 have opposed it and 11 have said they’re undecided. In a statement, the Board of Regents strongly opposed the bill, explaining the option of tenure “allows our institutions to recruit and retain the best faculty to teach, do research and provide service to advance the institutional missions of our public universities.”

Saunders said University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa, collectively, bring in more than $1 billion to Iowa in outside, external funding.

“That wouldn’t happen without a tenure system because the best researchers, the researchers that are able to attract the big-dollar grants … they’ll go someplace where they can get tenure and that money wouldn’t come to the state and our students wouldn’t benefit from those faculty members who do that teaching,” Saunders said. “Tenure is a status that faculty try to achieve. It is a capstone to their career. It says that they have arrived academically. That they are part of the faculty. If you take that ability to achieve that in this state, we will be an island academically and not in a good way.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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