Iowa GOP lawmakers again propose bill barring university faculty tenure

Lawmaker renews effort to strip professor protections

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gaze
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Republican state lawmakers are pushing again to eliminate tenure at Iowa’s public universities, which already have been reporting fewer tenured faculty for years even without a mandate to eliminate the academic freedom protection.

Similar to proposed legislation he introduced in 2018 and 2019, Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, this session has put forth a bill “prohibiting tenure systems at public postsecondary educational institutions.”

The measure would bar tenure and its protections at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. It says acceptable grounds for termination should include — but not be limited to — “just cause, program discontinuation, and financial exigency.”

Academic tenure — which has a rich history among colleges and universities nationally — is contractual employment that gives faculty a higher level 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,” according to the Iowa Board of Regents.

A tenured post is considered an indefinite academic appointment, and those who get it can lose it only if they fail to meet employment obligations, their program is eliminated or in times of financial exigency.

Tenure-track faculty are those on a path to achieving tenure, but they must serve a six-year probationary period involving peer, expert and external reviews.

Under the proposed law, each of Iowa’s public universities would adopt a written statement enumerating employment agreements, annual performance reviews, minimum standards of good practice, standards for review and faculty discipline — along with policies spelling out “dismissal for cause, program discontinuance, and financial exigency.”


Zaun’s proposal matches a similar proposal in the House introduced by Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison.

It uses nearly the same language, with both stipulating the bill wouldn’t affect faculty who already have a contract or those who sign before July 1 “unless such contract is renewed on or after July 1, 2021.”

Zaun proposed bills eliminating tenure in the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions. The Senate’s Education Committee did not call up Zaun’s bill the first year. An education subcommittee in 2019 recommended passage, although the full committee never took action.

Zaun in the past has expressed frustration with university courses being taught — increasingly — by teaching assistants, and with professors taking sabbaticals.

Urging the universities adopt a more businesslike approach that rewards job performance, he told The Gazette in 2019 that “I believe that you should be rewarded based on your job performance. ... I don’t think any professor should have a guaranteed job.”

Lobbyists with the three public universities and the regents office have come out against the bills. Also declaring their opposition are lobbyists for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber of Commerce in Ames — home to ISU — is listed as undecided, as is a lobbyist for Iowa Western Community College.

When it comes to attracting and retaining faculty and students, state university and regent officials have cited tenure as imperative.


But even without a legislative act barring tenure, the number of those appointments has been waning. The Board of Regent’s 2020 report shows the number tenured and tenure-track faculty have decreased at all three universities.

Iowa’s regent system in the 2014-2015 academic year boasted 2,681 tenured faculty and 821 tenure-track faculty. But by 2019-2020, that was down to 2,495 tenured and 782 tenure-track faculty.

Meanwhile, non-tenure-track faculty numbers have surged — especially at the UI, which had 1,478 in 2014-2015 and 1,936 last year. Where tenured and tenure-track faculty used to make up the majority of UI faculty, non-tenure-track faculty accounted for 57 percent in 2019-2020.

Administrators have said abolishing tenure would force the campuses to raise salaries to remain competitive for elite professors.

A report this month from Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency shows average faculty compensation already has been climbing across all three campuses even when adjusted for inflation.

UI professor pay has spiked 63 percent from 2001 to 2020; ISU professor pay has jumped 59 percent over that period; and UNI professor pay is up 35 percent.

Even so, the UI and ISU since at least the 2002 budget year have been well below their peers in average total salary expenditures. In the 2019 budget year, the most recent data available for comparison, UI’s total average salary expenditures were nearly 46 percent below their peer group average. ISU’s were nearly 36 percent below the peer average.

UNI average salary expenditures actually exceeded the peer average from 2002 to 2012.

But UNI recently took steps to become more competitive for students by keeping tuition down, and now salary expenses have dropped 17 percent below the peer average.

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