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IOWA CITY — After three attempts in four years to eliminate through legislative action academic tenure across Iowa’s public universities, lawmakers this year didn’t propose such a measure.
But that doesn’t mean tenure is necessarily thriving across the universities governed by Iowa’s Board of Regents.
Next week,the regents will receive its annual tenure report showing — once again — more declines among tenured and tenure-track faculty and increases among those on a non-tenure-track path.
The University of Iowa — which, unlike Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, runs a growing health care enterprise with some “clinical” faculty classified as non-tenure-track — continues to report the smallest percent of total faculty with tenure, at 34 percent.
With 1,123 tenured faculty this year, the UI tally is 12 percent below its 1,277 tenured faculty count in 2010 — when that group made up 46 percent of UI’s total faculty.
UI’s tenured faculty cohort has been shrinking for years, as has its tenure-track faculty, which this year accounts for 10 percent of its total faculty.
The decline among that group has leveled off in recent years — dropping just one from last year to 324, although still 19 percent below UI’s tenure-track count of 402 in 2010, when that group made up more than 14 percent of the total UI faculty count.
Iowa’s regents define tenure as an “employment status under which faculty members can receive 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.”
The board, in its annual report, is careful to point out that tenured faculty can be fired if they don’t meet job expectations or obligations — or if their program is cut or in financial crisis. And achieving tenure comes after a rigorous probationary period typically lasting six years and involving internal and external peer reviews.
Although university officials and national organizations like the American Association of University Professors have stressed the importance of tenure in protecting academic freedom and allowing institutions to compete for the best and brightest professors, some Iowa lawmakers have voiced concern that tenure allows “bad” professors to remain employed.
“In the real world, if you mess up, and you mess up that bad, you're fired,” Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said last year when he advanced a tenure-elimination bill out of an education subcommittee. “You get canned. It's going to be hard to get another job.”
Last year was the third year since 2018 that legislators proposed a bill to eliminate tenure — and last year’s debate went further than years past due to free speech controversies swirling on all three campuses. But critics of the bills said even talking about nixing tenure hurts the state and campuses.
UI in the 2015-16 academic year saw non-tenure-track faculty become the majority — making up a little more than half of its faculty. That percentage has continued to grow year-over-year to 57 percent today, amounting to 1,885 of its total 3,332 faculty.
Non-tenure-track faculty remain the minority at Iowa State and UNI, both of which report 32 percent of their faculty either don’t have tenure or aren’t on a track to get it. Non-tenure-track numbers and percentages, though, are up this year for both campuses — which, like UI, saw tenure and tenure-track numbers fall from last year.
Looking back to 2010, ISU’s tenured faculty numbers have dropped 5 percent, and its tenure-track numbers are down 22 percent. UNI has seen a 25 percent drop in its tenured faculty over that period, along with a 32 loss in those on a tenure track.
Those trends are not unique to Iowa — as tenure has been declining for decades on American campuses from coast to coast, according to national higher education media and advocacy organizations.
The Chronicle of Higher Education last year reported that in 1993-94 more than half — about 56 percent — of faculty at tenure-offering institutions had tenure. In 2018-19 that number had dropped to 45 percent.
Iowa also isn’t the only state to discuss dropping tenure. Missouri has mulled legislation, and Georgia’s public university system in October changed its tenure rules to make terminating tenured faculty easier.
Iowa lawmakers didn’t raise the issue this session, beyond a legislative study committee’s request for evidence “that empirically shows that tenure produces better outcomes for students and Iowa taxpayers.”
The universities responded collectively by pointing, in part, to several specific financial impacts:
- In the 2020 budget year, Iowa’s universities received more than $628 million in competitive federal grants and awards, most of which resulted from the work of tenured and tenure-track faculty.
- An external economic impact analysis in 2018 showed Iowa’s public university research spending — supported by federal and private grants and institutional support — had a net statewide impact of more than $730 million and the equivalent of 9,682 jobs.
- A 2020 economic development report showed 176 patents were awarded and 85 license or option agreements were signed that year — all based on research done by university faculty, yielding $10.3 million to Iowa companies.
'Without external interests’
For Naomi Greyser — a UI associate professor of American Studies, English, and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies, who officially earned tenure in 2016 — achieving the esteemed academic appointment did not come easy.
Between having a baby and working toward tenure, “I barely slept for like seven years.”
“Between working and writing and thinking and researching … and revising things and working my butt off, it was really hard,” she said. “It was really stressful.”
Although Greyser said she hasn’t experienced tenure denial, she knows people who have, “and it’s really hard and emotional.”
Having tenure, to Greyser, isn’t a pass to do whatever she wants. It isn’t the promise of a lifetime job without accountability. It’s about offering students a world-class education via the freedom to ask hard questions and feeling free to probe hard questions herself.
“You can follow a line of thought as far as possible without external interests interrupting you or getting in your way,” she said.
Depriving Iowa’s public universities of the tool of tenure would have a devastating impact not just for professors but for students and the state, according to Greyser.
“This would become a shell of a university,” she said.
UI — in hopes of boosting its top-tier tenured faculty — recently launched several new programs committing millions to recruitment and retention.
Looking ahead to next year, the regent universities are recommending a combined 277 promotions or tenure actions — a 17 percent increase from last year’s 237. UI, specifically, aims to offer promotion with tenure to 54 faculty, up from last year’s 35.
The number of promotions UI is recommending without tenure remains above those with tenure, at 96. But officials have said some of those nontenure promotions are tied to clinical-track faculty associated with UI Health Care.
“The university remains committed to the importance of tenure and tenure-track faculty to further the university missions,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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