Education

Senators advance bill to drop tenure, citing free speech concerns

House Speaker Grassley: It's 'definitely a live round'

Iowa Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, speaks at a 2017 Iowa Ideas conference panel in Cedar Rapids. Rozenboom is among l
Iowa Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, speaks at a 2017 Iowa Ideas conference panel in Cedar Rapids. Rozenboom is among legislative Republicans upset about freedom of speech issues — specifically for conservative voices — on Iowa’s public university campuses. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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One day after an House education committee advanced a bill to eliminate tenure at Iowa’s public universities, an Iowa Senate subcommittee did the same — questioning the authenticity of tenure review and linking tenure with concerns about politicization in higher education.

“Some things are more important than dollars and cents, and I think freedom of speech and freedom of expression are those things,” Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said in reference to First Amendment controversies this year involving suppression of conservative voices at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Rozenboom tied together fellow Republicans’ oversight of those incidents and a separate proposal from Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, that would require regents report its employees’ political affiliation.

Rozenboom read comments from UI conservative students fearing reprimand for speaking their mind, and he blamed the campus’ liberal bias for that.

“Taxpayers, lawmakers and donors need to wake from the spell cast by American universities’ past glory,” Rozenboom said, quoting a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by political commentator John Ellis. “Only then can they summon the courage to withdraw funding and force the necessary change, replacing faux academic political activists with real academic thinkers, people who care about original thought, not peddling an ideology.”

‘Terrible,’ ‘harmful’

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, along with a UI lobbyist and Board of Regents official, pushed back — arguing that stripping tenure from Iowa’s public higher education will incite an exodus of top faculty, impinge recruitment efforts and hamper research endeavors supporting Iowa’s agriculture and health care industries, to name a few.

Regents in 2019 produced an independent economic analysis that found its universities had an $11.8 billion economic impact in the 2018 budget year, including $730 million in research spending and $1.5 billion in UI Hospitals and Clinics’ spending.

Noting tenured faculty drive much of the research endeavors supporting Iowa’s workforce and industry, Quirmbach argued, “You pass this bill, all of that goes away.”

The campuses “would not be able to bring in new people,” he said.

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“The people we would hire would just be the people who aren’t good enough to get tenure someplace else. This is a terrible bill, it would destroy the universities.”

UI lobbyist Keith Saunders echoed that sentiment.

“This bill, if enacted, would be one of the most harmful pieces of legislation that could affect the universities, and that’s not just hyperbole,” he said, noting the campuses are essentially a vast collection of the best and brightest.

“These institutions have taken generations to build,” Saunders said. “Quality is something that accumulates over time. It can be lost in an instant.”

Send a message?

Carlin — who proposed having the universities poll their employees’ political affiliation, though employees would not be identified by name — questioned the quality and intensity of tenure review, its perception and whether it’s really doing the good the campuses purport.

“Isn’t one of the incentives that pretty much no matter what you do, you’re not going to lose your job?” he said.

Outside of Thursday’s education committee discussion, Sen. Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, called the proposal “concerning” — even if it doesn’t become law.

“I wish that our Republican colleagues would understand that even if they’re just trying to send a message with this, even if they don’t want it to become law, it still has a chilling effect on Iowa faculty and makes it just that more difficult for us to compete with other states to attract high-quality talent,” he said.

“It’s definitely not the kind of legislation that’s a good fit for our state, and it certainly shouldn’t be a priority when we’ve got so many other things that ought to be on that list.”

‘Slap in the face’

Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, a tenured member of the Drake University faculty, said the proposed legislation “would be a disaster for economic development and for gaining great research money, gaining outstanding faculty at our regent universities.”

Tenure isn’t a ticket to a lifetime appointment of relaxed standards, officials argued, noting ongoing annual reviews from students, colleagues and external peers. It doesn’t eliminate the option for termination for cause or financial losses and needs.

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It is meant to encourage independent inquiry, according to Konfrst, who called the proposal “a slap in the face to higher education.”

“It’s also just not really a smart move when it comes to economic development,” she said.

GOP frustrated

But House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, directly associated the tenure discussion with his caucus’ free speech concerns and said frustrations are growing.

“I think our caucus is really to the point now where we feel that we invest millions and millions of dollars every year in higher education, we think it is something that needs to have a serious look,” he said. “So we will take it to our caucus and see whether there’s consensus or not on that issue.

“But it is something that’s definitely a live round right now.”

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

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