DES MOINES — Iowa would become the first state in the nation to abolish tenure for professors at public universities under a proposal making its way through the Iowa Capitol.
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, introduced the legislation, which is similar to a bill he introduced last year that did not pass. It would require the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to eliminate tenure for professors.
The proposal was approved Wednesday by a Senate subcommittee with the support of Zaun and Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who leads the Senate’s Education Committee, said she had not yet spoken with the subcommittee members and has not decided whether the proposal will be debated in her committee.
Sinclair did not call up Zaun’s bill for committee debate last year.
Zaun, who said his children have attended Iowa public universities, expressed frustrations with courses being taught by teaching assistants instead of the professors, and with professors taking sabbaticals.
“I’m a business person. We reward people based on their job performance,” Zaun said.
“Philosophically, I disagree with tenure, and I believe that you should be rewarded based on your job performance. ... I don’t think any professor should have a guaranteed job. That’s my philosophical difference.”
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But tenure is not an automatic guarantee of employment, said Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the three universities. Boon said 25 tenured faculty members have been terminated over the past 10 years.
And abolishing tenure would come at great cost to the universities, officials said, because they could lose research funding and would have to raise salaries to be competitive with other schools when hiring.
“We exist in a competitive environment to hire the very best faculty,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said Tuesday during an Education Appropriations subcommittee meeting. “That means we have to have competitive salaries. We have to have competitive facilities. We have to have availability for them to work with undergraduate and graduate students, to engage in public-private partnerships.
“All of the competitors out there who want to hire the very best all offer tenure. If we would choose to move away, then we would not get the very best people.”
Added UI President Bruce Harreld: “If we abolish tenure, I would anticipate the market price for salaries would have to go up for obvious reasons. There’s a real economic impact.”
No states have laws that abolish tenure at public universities, according to the American Association of University Professors. There have been efforts to weaken or abolish tenure in Wisconsin and Missouri, a representative for the association said.
“We would be the only state that would not offer tenure to our faculty. Faculty would avoid Iowa,” said Keith Saunders, a state relations officer for the regents.
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James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.