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Lawmaker's bid to ban tenure would make Iowa an outlier

Opponents call it 'mean spirited' and unnecessary

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If a bill introduced this week intending to make it easier for the state’s public universities to fire professors by abolishing tenure ever becomes law, it would make Iowa an anomaly in banning a widely accepted practice of ensconcing academic freedoms on campus.

The Republican senator from Urbandale sponsoring the bill, Brad Zaun, said it’s needed so universities can weed out unfit faculty.

“Our regents, and certainly our college presidents, cannot get rid of bad professors,” Zaun said, “and my bill would give them the ability to do that.”

It’s too early in the legislative process to say whether his proposal will get traction in the now-GOP-controlled Legislature. He has sponsored the measure before — unsuccessfully — but said this time is different.

“I’m hoping that at least we have the conversation on this,” he said.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who chairs the Senate Education Committee that would take up the bill, said she’s in a “wait-and-see pattern” because of proposed changes to collective bargaining and union laws for public employees.

“I want to make sure that anything we’re doing doesn’t conflict with each other,” she said.

Faculty members, education advocates and some lawmakers Thursday expressed concern — if not alarm — with the tenure proposal.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance with the national American Association of University Professors, said Iowa would stand alone if it drops tenure.

“Since tenure sort of became widely adopted in the post-World War II time period, I’m not aware of a state outlawing it — not at all,” he said.

Some individual higher education institutions have contemplated going that route, he said. Those efforts, like the bill in Iowa, add to a mounting attack on higher education and academic freedom, according to Tiede.

“I think it particularly is facing threats by legislators at the moment,” he said. “There is a broad-based attack at this point on public higher education by legislators.”

He cited instances in Wisconsin, where lawmakers used budgeting to force universities to eliminate programs and cut positions, and in Kentucky, where a Republican-led Senate days ago approved a bill replacing the University of Louisville board of trustees.

The language of Zaun’s bill, introduced Wednesday, prohibits Iowa Board of Regents institutions from establishing or continuing any system of academic tenure. It lists some acceptable grounds for faculty termination including “just cause, program discontinuance, and financial exigency.” It also requires universities to produce employee agreements, annual performance reviews, minimum standards of good practice, faculty discipline protocol and policies on dismissal for just cause, among others.

The proposal also bars Iowa’s community colleges from establishing any tenure system.

Zaun linked the genesis of his proposal to feedback from parents concerned about the quality of their children’s education, noting reports of professors announcing at the outset their plans to have aides take over for the rest of the semester.

Iowa’s public universities say they already have some form of all the things the bill would establish, including procedures for terminating tenured professors for a variety of causes, including violation of policy and demonstration of unacceptable performance.

Regents President Bruce Rastetter issued a statement opposing it.

“We recognize the concern about merit-based evaluations addressed in the bill, however the Board of Regents understands the role of tenure,” he said in the statement. “I look forward to meeting with Sen. Zaun to hear his thoughts.”

Representing communities surrounding the University of Iowa, Sens. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, called the proposal a bad idea.

“It’s a mean-spirited proposal that will undermine the ability of our public universities to recruit talent,” Bolkcom said. “We are in a national-international competition for the most skilled faculty and researchers across the country, and we need to have not only good salaries, but we need the ability to have tenure for these faculty members.”

Dvorsky said the concept doesn’t make sense.

“Certainly there would have to be a lot more discussion if it was a bill that people are looking at — and I don’t think it is,” he said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, where Iowa State University is located, said he puts this proposal in the same category as last year’s “Rose Bowl dancing cow bill” — proposed legislation targeting the Stanford University band’s performance in last year’s game against Iowa.

“If one were going to take it seriously, I can tell you it’s the easiest way to destroy a great university,” he said.

The number of tenured professors at Iowa’s public universities has been on the decline.

A recent regents report showed tenured professors now make up about 45 percent of all faculty on the three campuses compared with 47 percent two years ago.

When the board in 2015 hired businessman Bruce Harreld as UI president, some faculty members expressed concern about a potential threat to tenure — although Harreld has made strong statements about its value.

One of his first initiatives, in fact, came in the form of a “faculty vitality” proposal aimed at improving faculty recruitment and retention by upping salaries for tenure-track professors.

UI Provost Barry Butler said Thursday the university’s ability to attract and retain top talent would take a direct hit if Iowa dropped tenure at its universities.

“It’s clear we would be an outlier in the country,” Butler said. “It would clearly impact us. We would have to compete against schools that have that as part of their hiring package for faculty.”

Frank Durham, associate professor and director of the UI master’s program in strategic communication, said dropping tenure would harm students by reducing the value of their diploma. Tenure is more than job security, he said, in that it encourages faculty to produce “competitive courses based on their own, cutting-edge research.”

“Employers here in Iowa and nationwide would soon realize that our graduates were slipping in terms of the up-to-date knowledge and skills that only a tenured faculty can produce,” Durham said.

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

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