Bill to eliminate professor tenure reintroduced in Iowa Legislature

A state senator has reintroduced a bill to eliminate tenure in Iowa universities in the state Legislature, two years after its introduction sparked controversy among university communities.


Sergio Flores

The Iowa State Capitol is shown on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015.

Kelsey Harrell, News Reporter

UPDATE Feb. 2: The legislation recently passed a three-member Senate Education subcommittee — the first procedural hurdle to becoming a state law. From there, the Senate Education Committee will need to approve the bill before it moves onto the full Senate. The Senate Education Committee is set to meet Feb. 4, but the bill is not on the agenda as of Friday evening. Read more here.

University officials are standing their ground after the reintroduction of a bill in the Legislature aimed at ending tenure in Iowa’s public universities.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, reintroduced a bill on Jan. 15 to prohibit “the establishment of tenure systems in public postsecondary educational institutions.” He had previously introduced a similar bill in 2017, but it died in committee.

The bill, Senate File 27, states that a faculty member can be terminated on grounds that include, but are not limited to, “just cause, program discontinuance, and financial exigency.”

The state Board of Regents’ universities are also directed to “adopt a written statement enumerating employment agreements, annual performance evaluations of all faculty members, minimum standards of good practice, standards for review and discipline of faculty members, and policies with regard to dismissal.”

Because the bill was reintroduced early last week, the bill has not yet been reviewed by a subcommittee of legislators who serve on the Iowa Senate Education Committee. The subcommittee is made up of Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville; Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone; and Zaun.

When the bill was introduced in 2017, it faced opposition from the regents and the University of Iowa. The regents and the UI have stated that their stance on the bill has not changed. In 2017 and 2019, regents’ lobbyists declared their stance against the bill.

“The Board of Regents opposes this bill,” Josh Lehman, the regents’ senior communications director, said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “Tenure allows our institutions to recruit and retain the best faculty to teach, do research, and provide service to advance the institutional missions of our public universities.”

As the DI previously reported, the UI has an established annual performance review for tenured faculty that includes “an evaluation of research/scholarship, teaching, and service.” Tenured faculty at the UI also undergo peer reviews every five years.

The UI operations manual states that if “the faculty member’s performance has fallen for a significant period of time below the expected standard of performance for the faculty member’s unit,” the dean may discuss with the faculty member “a plan to address the problems uncovered in the review.”

RELATED: Senator takes aim at university tenure

“I fully support the tenure system and the principles of academic freedom that underlie tenure, both at our institution and in higher education in general,” UI President Bruce Harreld said in 2015 about tenure in universities. A spokesperson said his comments continue to represent the UI president’s views.

“The core purpose of tenure is safeguarding the free exploration and expression of ideas, which are essential to the discovery of knowledge. In our teaching, research, or creative expression, we must be able to investigate and debate information and viewpoints freely regardless of whether they’re controversial.”

UI Faculty Senate President Russ Ganim said in an email the Faculty Senate supports Harreld’s statement but did not comment further.

Zaun did not respond to the DI’s requests for a comment at the time of publication. Behn said he had not yet had a chance to review the legislation as of Wednesday.

Wahls told the DI he doesn’t believe the bill will advance very far, considering the bill was stymied in committee in 2017. He said he will also encourage his fellow legislators to vote against the bill.

Tenure in universities defends academic integrity and freedom, Wahls said. Ensuring that university professors can speak the truth without fear of losing their positions is an important part of education, and tenure helps do that, he said.

“[The bill] would be the death of higher education in the state of Iowa and I strongly oppose it,” Wahls said.