IOWA LEGISLATURE

After Iowa State syllabus controversy, legislation would make universities post course info online

'The syllabus must be available on the institution's internet site for at least two years'

(File photo) Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesd
(File photo) Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Gazette File Photo)

Continuing fallout from an Iowa State University professor’s instructions last fall barring students from choosing project topics opposing same-sex marriage, abortion or the Black Lives Matter movement, state lawmakers Monday advanced a measure requiring Iowa’s public universities publish all course outlines online.

House Study Bill 199 — which Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, introduced and a House education subcommittee passed — adds to a growing catalog of proposed legislation this session aimed at addressing Republican concerns over free speech suppression at Iowa’s universities, particularly suppression of conservative voices.

Lawmakers also have advanced a pair of widely-debated bills to make Iowa first state in the nation to ban tenure, and another requiring universities poll and report to the General Assembly the political affiliation of all of its tens of thousands of employees.

Additionally, a legislative oversight committee has exacted intense pressure on Iowa’s three public universities following free speech incidents in the fall — including the course syllabus uproar at ISU; the rejection of a anti-abortion rights student group at the University of Northern Iowa; and concerns over the University of Iowa dental college’s handling of a conservative student’s criticism.

The bill advanced Monday would require the UI, ISU and UNI to post online syllabi for all undergraduate and graduate-level credit courses by the start of classes.

The syllabi, according to the bill, would have to include a summary of course requirements; major assignments and tests; required or recommended reading; and a “general description of the subject matter of any lecture or discussion.”

“If the instructor makes substantive changes to a course, the syllabus shall be updated as soon as reasonably possible,” according to the proposed legislation. “And the syllabus must be available on the institution’s internet site for at least two years following the initial posting.”

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The bill doesn’t explicitly say whether the universities would have to post the outlines on public-facing sites or whether university-only sites would suffice.

None of the three public universities currently require that instructors post a course syllabus online — or to make them publicly available — although some do.

ISU came under fire last August after assistant teaching professor Chloe Clark — who’s been with the university since 2016 — included in her English 250 syllabus a “GIANT WARNING” against intentional “othering” like racism, sexism or homophobia.

Threatening possible dismissal of her students, Clark barred them from pursuing any topic “that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e. no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.).”

After Clark’s syllabus captured widespread attention — particularly among conservative media and lawmakers — ISU issued a statement affirming its commitment to free expression and noting Clark’s syllabus didn’t comply with its policies or values.

Clark was reprimanded, slapped with a letter in her permanent file and advised to revise her syllabus — which happened Aug. 17, “the first day of the fall semester, as soon as this issue came to our attention,” according to an ISU statement.

Clark remains on the ISU faculty and is teaching several lectures this spring including English 250, which covers written, oral, visual and electronic composition. A syllabus for her spring courses — provided to The Gazette upon request — includes course and learning objectives; some required texts; grading criteria; university policies including free expression; and conduct expectations.

“In this course, you will restrict your commentary on discussion boards to class-specific activities and discussions, will refrain from profane or offensive outbursts or from disruptions, and will not engage in behavior that is demeaning, threatening, or harmful to either yourself or class members.”

Although still an ISU employee, Clark’s name no longer appears in the ISU directory.

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“After discussing this with Clark, her contact information was removed from the directory as a safety measure,” according to ISU spokesman Rob Schweers.

In November, ISU adopted a free-expression syllabus statement required “verbatim” for all courses: “Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner,” according to the new statement Provost Jonathan Wickert announced.

ISU said it didn’t change its policy, but rather required more communication about campus expectations.

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

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