Staff Editorial

Address tenure decline at Iowa's public universities

Tthe University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tthe University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty at the state’s universities has declined over the past decade, according to a Board of Regents report. And that’s bad news for academic freedom, the stability of degree programs and the universities’ ability to attract top teaching talent.

Ten years ago, tenured faculty made up 52 percent of all faculty at the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University. In the current academic year, that number is 41 percent. Tenure-track faculty have declined from 16 to 13 percent. Non-tenure-track faculty now make up 46 percent, up from 32 percent in 2009-2010.

At UI, non-tenure track positions account for 57 percent of faculty, up from 40 percent 10 years ago. And UI is the only state university with tenured faculty comprising less than 50 percent of overall faculty.

Tenured faculty enjoy more job security “in order to create and maintain an atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas and inquiry,” according to the Board of Regents.

Iowa’s numbers are part of a national trend. A 2018 report by the American Association of University Professors found that 73 percent of faculty positions nationally are non-tenure track.

“For the most part, these are insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom,” the report said.

Of course, a major reason for the shift to non-tenure positions has been budgetary. State university funding in Iowa has been squeezed repeatedly during the last decade, causing waves of belt-tightening and program cuts.

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But taking faculty off the tenure track can exact other costs. Studies have suggested the move can negatively affect teaching quality, student retention and graduation rates. These trends strike at the core of a university’s mission and jeopardize its future. And students are receiving less instruction from tenure track faculty at the same time the cost of their education rises.

We’d like to urge the Legislature to recognize this problem and provide additional resources. But we know amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a budgetary storm is coming, spawned by a sharp economic downturn. We hope, at least, that the importance of our state universities as engines of education, innovation and growth is not lost as lawmakers appropriate emergency dollars.

And when the storm passes, we urge university leaders and state officials to search for ways to restore a healthier faculty balance, one that leads to the high-quality education and research we expect our state universities to deliver.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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