IOWA CITY — In the wake of a legislative proposal to ban tenure on Iowa’s public university campuses, University of Iowa faculty and administrators — including UI President Bruce Harreld — have issued statements of unequivocal support for academic freedom and the tenure system.
“We at the University of Iowa, and I personally as the president of the UI, fully and passionately support the tenure system and the principles of academic freedom that underlie tenure, both at our institution and in higher education in general,” Harreld stated in a recent message to faculty.
In his message, Harreld also encouraged faculty to voice support of the tenure system and its principals in hopes of promoting a better understanding of their “essential value to our students and to our society.”
“Academic freedom and tenure really are at the core of who we are, what we are about, what we do, and what our mission in service to society is,” Harreld wrote. “My job as president is to make sure that this character is understood, supported, and enhanced at our institution and among the public that supports us.”
The issue of tenure recently grabbed the state and national spotlight after Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, last week introduced a bill to abolish tenure on Board of Regents campuses and prevent community colleges from establishing any such system.
Zaun, who has introduced similar legislation before without success, argues universities right now can’t weed out unfit faculty.
“Our regents, and certainly our college presidents, cannot get rid of bad professors,” he said last week. “My bill would give them the ability to do that.”
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Although Zaun’s proposal has fallen flat in the past, he’s hoping it will gain some traction this year — with a new GOP-controlled Legislature. Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who heads up the Senate Education Committee that would take up the bill, said she’s waiting to form an opinion on the measure until knowing more about possible changes to collective bargaining and union laws in Iowa.
“I want to make sure that anything we’re doing doesn’t conflict with each other,” she told The Gazette last week.
Some lawmakers, university faculty and education advocates have expressed concern with the potential impact of such legislation — including the challenge it would create in recruiting new talent.
Hans-Jorge Tiede, associate secretary in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance for the national American Association of University Professors, said Iowa would be an outlier if it dropped tenure.
The AAUP followed Tiede’s comments with a news release condemning the “concerted attack on academic freedom.” Citing both legislation in Iowa and in Missouri to eliminate tenure, the AAUP praised Iowa’s Board of Regents for opposing the proposed legislation and called on University of Missouri curators to do the same.
“In today’s political climate, with academics and independent media under attack, what is needed is certainly not less due process or fewer protections for open debate, dialogue and research,” according to the AAUP statement.
In a message to UI faculty Wednesday, Faculty Senate President Thomas Vaughn also praised the regents for opposing the proposal. He said UI faculty members are working with colleagues at Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa on the issue, and he stressed the bill is just a proposal at this point.
“We have had several conversations with legislative experts about this issue, and we are optimistic that the bill will not be successful,” Vaughn wrote. “Be assured that the Faculty Senate will continue to monitor this situation and to take appropriate action.”
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When Harreld — a former IBM executive without administrative academic experience — was hired in 2015, many questioned his commitment to academic freedom and tenure. But, in Harreld’s recent message on the topic, he countered statements that universities — specifically presidents — don’t have a way to terminate “bad professors.”
“We all know — and it’s important for our constituents to understand — that the academic freedom that comes with tenure involves significant responsibilities and obligations to the truth and to those in our charge,” he wrote. “That is why our tenure review process is so rigorous and why I support it — it attests to our expectation of the highest-quality work and a trajectory of excellence for our faculty.”
He said tenure and academic freedom “are necessary for us to recruit and retain the best faculty so that we may provide the best possible education and the most valuable new knowledge for our students, our state, our nation and our world.”
“Our excellence — and our purpose — as an institution lie squarely in our academic freedom,” Harreld wrote.
The modern concept of an academic tenure position — as defined by the AAUP, which helped formulate and endorse it in 1940 — is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances like financial exigency and program discontinuation.
Advocates say tenure is essential for the free exploration and expression of ideas.
“In our teaching, our research, and our creative expression, we must be able to investigate and debate information and viewpoints freely whether they are controversial or not,” Harreld said in his message. “Cutting-edge research is, by definition, frequently uncomfortable as it explores new areas and pushes often well-established boundaries. Freedom to push these boundaries is critical and should never be impeded.”
But the AAUP, in its statement, said that is happening — as many educators already lack the protection of tenure. And the attacks on those systems, according to the association, “come hand-in-hand with the defunding of public higher education.”
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