IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa lawmakers advance bill to eliminate tenure

'There is a very strong concern with many in the State of Iowa about what's taking place on college campuses'

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)

A bill to end tenure at Iowa’s public universities advanced out of an education subcommittee Tuesday, despite pushback from Board of Regents lobbyists and opposition from economic and industry associations — like those representing Iowa’s soybean, cattle, and pork producers.

“I worry that we’re going to lose the best and the brightest,” Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, told her colleagues in a House education subcommittee Tuesday, stressing potential losses from Iowa’s research enterprise and from its medical, veterinary, pharmaceutical and dental practitioner pool.

“We have some of the best in the nation,” Mascher said, noting recent work on COVID-19 vaccines within UI Health Care. “For us to lose that quality worries me a great deal.”

But Reps. John H. Wills, R-Spirit Lake, and Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, advanced the tenure-elimination bill, arguing Iowa’s publicly funded universities should be able to terminate faculty for reasons beyond what they define as “just cause, program discontinuance and financial exigency” — per the regents’ current tenure policy.

“In the real world, if you mess up, and you mess up that bad, you’re fired,” Wheeler said. “You get canned. It’s going to be hard to get another job. So I won’t get into all the different details, but Rep. Wills and I are going to pass this on.

“This is something we need to continue to have a conversation about,” he said. “I understand what some of you guys are making arguments for. But good professors aren’t going to be fired.”

This is the third year since 2018 that Iowa lawmakers have mulled legislation to end tenure. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, proposed bills in 2018, 2019 and again this year, with versions under consideration in both the Senate and the House.

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The measures “prohibiting tenure systems at public postsecondary educational institutions” would bar the highly esteemed and widely sought-after academic protection at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa.

Even without legislative action, Iowa’s tenure and tenure-track numbers have been waning in recent years — inciting criticism from faculty members who hold in high esteem academic tenure, which serves as a level of contractual employment giving faculty more job security “in order to create and maintain an atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas and inquiry.”

A tenured post is considered an indefinite appointment, and tenure-track faculty are on a path to achieving tenure through an extensive six-year probationary period involving peer, expert, and external review.

Critics of the tenure elimination proposal say it would make Iowa the first in the nation to bar the historic protection and lead to an “exodus” of top faculty seeking what they perceive as earned compensation for their years of education, research, contributions to academia.

Advocates for tenure on Tuesday argued Iowa’s public universities — already facing budget woes with pandemic-propelled enrollment losses, new costs, frozen tuition and state funding cuts — would have to pay faculty a lot more to keep them.

But Wheeler dismissed that argument, saying plenty of faculty already come to Iowa without the promise of tenure.

“If it’s a great program, if it’s a great school and has great opportunities, people are still going to come,” he said. “To say that they aren’t because of tenure … And think about it this way, how many professors don’t have tenure?

“Many of them are coming already knowing that they may not get tenure.”

To the argument the universities already allow tenured faculty to be fired for “just cause,” Wheeler said the campuses haven’t answered his questions about what qualifies as just cause and how many tenured faculty have been terminated.

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When asked what is driving the push among some lawmakers to eliminate tenure, Wheeler cited a string of free-speech and constitutional controversies across Iowa’s public universities in recent months and years — like at Iowa State in August, when a professor’s syllabus barred students from submitting material opposing things like Black Lives Matter, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

“I think that there is a very strong concern with many in the state of Iowa about what’s taking place on college campuses,” Wheeler told The Gazette. “I think, in general, the trust in our academics being free and fair is not quite there right now.

“This would be something that would allow for more accountability.”

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

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