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Tenure numbers drop across Iowa public universities, even as bills to kill it die
Proposals to eliminate tenure across Iowa's public universities might be dead for this legislative session, but that doesn't mean the esteemed academic appointment is alive and well across the state's institutions.
A new Board of Regents report made public last week shows the combined tally of tenured and tenure-track professors at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa is dropping. Additionally, the regent universities this year are proposing fewer promotions - with or without tenure - at 237, down from last year's 277 and the lowest since 2016.
Although the UI is reporting fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty and proposing fewer promotions with tenure than last year, it's proposing more promotions without tenure - likely expanding that group's swelling majority among faculty.
The UI's 1,853 nontenure-track faculty now account for 56 percent of its 3,316 faculty total. And that total tally is falling not just at the UI but at ISU and UNI, too, in this pandemic-plagued year that has crunched budgets and further shrunk enrollment.
Faculty totals for the campuses combined fell 4 percent from last year - from 6,028 to 5,815, the lowest since 2014-15 and the first time the total has been below its prior year in a decade.
UI and ISU faculty totals dropped 3 percent this year from last; UNI lost 8 percent of its total.
The campuses shaved those numbers largely from the nontenure-track pool of employees.
UI's nontenure track total dropped 4 percent, while its tenure and tenure-track total lost 1 percent. ISU's nontenure loss was 4 percent, compared with its 2 percent drop in tenure and tenure-track. UNI lost 15 percent of nontenure track employees, compared with 5 percent of tenure and tenure-track.
Those numbers hit at the heart of the debate for both sides - with nontenure-track employees feeling expendable and insecure, and tenure opponents pointing to the reality that tenured faculty are harder to dismiss.
Tenure, by the board's definition, is an employment status granting 'heightened aspects of job security in order to create and maintain an atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas and inquiry necessary for educating Iowa's students and advancing knowledge in democracy.”
Achieving tenure involves a rigorous six-year probation period, during which candidates undergo comprehensive internal and external peer reviews.
Typically tenure comes with higher pay - an issue during tight budget times. But tenured faculty also offer experience, prestige and research opportunities that students seek out in shopping for colleges - circling back to the importance of strong student recruiting and enrollment in a hypercompetitive higher-education landscape.
Nonetheless, tenured professors can be let go for just cause, financial exigency or eliminated programming. They also can face a range of disciplinary actions.
Despite the value tenure holds for universities' capacity to recruit and retain top faculty, Republican state lawmakers this session - worried about liberal bias and free-speech suppression of conservative ideas - ran a pair of bills in the Senate and House looking to strip the public campuses' ability to offer tenure.
Those bills died last week. But the debate didn't.
'The bill was intended to start a discussion which it certainly did,” Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said of the measure.
In a February committee debate, Rep. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, rebuffed concerns that ending the academic appointment could hurt the entire state and its economy. He and peers questioned the authenticity of tenure review.
'Some things are more important than dollars and cents, and I think freedom of speech and freedom of expression are those things,” Rozenboom said, referencing First Amendment controversies this academic year at the universities.
Majority Republican lawmakers, with a series of bills including the ones to end tenure, rebuked recent events on Iowa's public universities - including the UI College of Dentistry's handling of a conservative student who opposed its condemnation of a diversity training ban and an ISU professor's syllabus banning conservative-leaning viewpoints.
Although the Board of Regents has maintained strong opposition to bills seeking to end tenure, it has acknowledged First-Amendment shortcomings and said it has taken steps to correct them.
In November, board President Mike Richards condemned 'preventing another person or group's opinion from being expressed or threatening those opinions with possible repercussions” - a reference to issues that had or were unfolding across the campuses.
'This is not who we are,” Richards said. 'And it is not right.”
The regents since have established a free speech committee to update policies and review free-speech complaints.
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