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Tenure ban doesn’t advance, but GOP ‘paying attention’ to campus free speech

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Tenure ban doesn’t advance, but GOP ‘paying attention’ to campus free speech

Jan 24, 2023 | 5:29 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Tenure ban doesn’t advance, but GOP ‘paying attention’ to campus free speech
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A Republican lawmaker said he likely won't move forward with a bill banning tenure at Iowa's state universities. Shown here is Iowa State University's Memorial Union. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Legislation banning tenure at Iowa’s public universities is unlikely to move forward, but a Republican lawmaker said he hopes the institutions know legislators are “paying attention” to problems like freedom of speech on Iowa college campuses.

“I’m tired, and a lot of legislators are tired playing Whack-a-Mole with some of the issues that are going on in our universities,” Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said. “… I likely will not bring this bill forward again, but I will say this, I hope you take the message back.”

Holt chaired a House Education subcommittee Tuesday on House File 48, which proposed prohibiting tenure at Iowa’s public universities. Lobbyists with the state Board of Regents, business organizations and agricultural groups registered in opposition to the legislation.

The legislation would affect professors at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa. Tenure is offered to faculty members as a form 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 Board of Regents’ website.

Speakers with the university system said during the meeting that tenured professors must go through a rigorous review process which takes six to seven years, and that those tenured are still subject to annual reviews, where problems in teaching can be addressed.

Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the Regents, said the notion that professors with tenure cannot be let go for any reason is incorrect. There are multiple reasons why tenured faculty can be dismissed for “just cause,” she said, which can mean anything from professional dishonesty to demonstrated incompetence to substantial neglect of duty.

“There are myths about faculty members who just don’t come to class to teach, that would be neglect of duty,” Boon said. “That would be something we can address. That’s for cause, serious misconduct and anything that’s prohibited by law, prohibited by board policy … All of these are things that we’re looking at on an annual basis to help us manage our our faculty ranks.”

Legislation prohibiting tenure was last brought up in the 2021 session, driven by concerns voiced by Republican lawmakers that universities were stifling free speech of conservative students. Keith Saunders, the Regents’ chief government relations officer, said he understands that there are some tenured faculty at Iowa universities who have said or done controversial things.

“Don’t throw out an entire system that’s allowed us to become one of the best educational systems in the country,” Saunders said. “Instead, let us deal with them. And we do.”

Tenure is one of the most desirable recruiting strategies that Iowa’s higher education institutions hold, Saunders said, and getting rid of it would make it difficult to attract quality educators and researchers. Removing tenure would reverse the 150 years of accomplishment that Iowa’s university system has worked to build, he said.

Other speakers with organizations including the Iowa Chamber Alliance, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and Iowa Veterinary Medical Association spoke against the bill at the subcommittee meeting, reiterating concerns that removing tenure would put Iowa at a disadvantage in both research and job recruitment.

“When our salaries are less than those offered at other institutions, we need every advantage possible to attract the best and brightest,” Saunders said. “Without having tenure, which is seen as an ultimate accomplishment of a faculty member, if that’s not able to be offered in Iowa, we will become an educational backwater.”

Holt said that he understands the concerns lobbyists brought up, and will likely not bring the legislation forward again. But he said Iowa universities must address concerns that conservative students have brought up of “how their values are assaulted” in some classrooms. But he said that universities are doing a good job of addressing these problems, pointing to the dean of UI’s College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics apologizing to members of the House Government Oversight Committee in 2021 for actions on students’ right to free speech.

“I just would appreciate if you would take the message back, that we’re paying attention,” Holt said.