Iowa Republican lawmakers again face opposition to advancing bill prohibiting tenure at public universities

The state Board of Regents and University of Iowa faculty oppose the bill that advanced out of a senate education subcommittee last week.

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Jenna Galligan

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Sabine Martin and Eleanor Hildebrandt


For the third consecutive year, Iowa Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would phase out tenure at Iowa’s three public universities. 

Senate File 41, introduced by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, prohibits the establishment or continuation of tenure at community colleges and state Board of Regents’ institutions for employees. 

The bill was reintroduced in January after being introduced in 2017 and 2019. In 2017, the legislation died in committee. In 2019, the education subcommittee recommended passing the bill, but the full committee did not act on the suggestion. 

On Jan. 26, the bill advanced out of a House education subcommittee. The Daily Iowan reached out to Zaun, but he did respond.

The legislation would have “a very chilling effect,” for the state’s three public universities, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who opposes the bill, said.  

“We would be the only state in the nation that did not allow tenure and eliminated tenure. It would affect our ability to not only attract new faculty but to retain the faculty that we have,” Mascher said.

Lawmakers in Missouri and Wisconsin have proposed eliminating tenure in recent years. 

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a tenured appointment “is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” 

Data visualization by Eleanor Hildebrandt/The Daily Iowan

Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said a reason that the bill was introduced was because of cases in the state of “attacks on college campuses” of people with different viewpoints that professors or different parts of the college disagree with. 

“There’s the case at the University of Northern Iowa where the student senate refused to let a pro-life group be organized on campus,” Wheeler said. “There was a case at the Dental College at the University of Iowa where a young man was basically accused of being unprofessional for responding to an email disagreeing with where the dental college was on an executive order from the President. And the big one, the Iowa State University professor who essentially told her class that if they disagreed with her on certain issues, you know, they’re in the doghouse.”

Mascher said the lawmakers supporting the bill think that people who are tenured are not able to be fired. 

“We had university folks who testified at the subcommittee and explained to them very clearly that first of all, any professor can be fired for cause. Second of all, they are evaluated every year. It doesn’t mean that they are never evaluated or can’t be fired,” Mascher said. 

Katherine Tachau, a professor emerita at the UI’s history department, said that originally, tenure was created to give university faculty protection from being fired primarily for their political views at Stanford University in the 20th century. 

Tachau said in the last 30 years, business management techniques have taken over at universities that replace tenure-track plans with instructor lines with no tenure. She said the goal of this is to be able to fire people quickly, without due process.

“People who think it’s a job for life, tend not to realize how much evaluation there is over the years there and how careful it is,” Tachau said. 

Data visualization by Eleanor Hildebrandt/The Daily Iowan

UI Faculty Senate president, Joseph Yockey, told The Daily Iowan that tenure is vital to the present and future success at the regent institutions, for the students, and for the state of Iowa. 

“I am pleased with the strong response to the proposed legislation provided by the Board of Regents and the business community across Iowa,” Yockey said in an email to the DI

The regents and the business community always come out against bills to remove tenure because removing it would destroy the infrastructure of the public higher education system, Loren Glass, president of the AAUP UI chapter said. 

“I would like to see a legislature that recognizes the value that the institutions have in the state. Because these are great schools and they are great schools because tenure is at the core of how higher education has functioned,” Glass said. 

The regents oppose the legislation, said Josh Lehman, the regents’ senior communications director in an email to the DI

“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,” he said. “Our institutions have rigorous accountability procedures in place and conduct annual reviews of faculty at all levels, including tenured faculty.”

Data visualization by Eleanor Hildebrandt/The Daily Iowan

Lehman said the review process ensures that all faculty members continue to perform highly when it comes to faculty activities. 

Wheeler said the regents are probably going to oppose most things that the senate Republicans do because of what he charged as “liberalism” taking place on college campuses. 

“If it’s a good professor, the professor’s not going to leave, the professor’s going to stay. If the program is good and the college is good, people are going to want to come and they’re going to want to work at the college. They’re gonna want to work in a certain department or with a certain program,” Wheeler said. 

The University of Northern Iowa’s United Faculty union also opposes the legislation. In an email to the DI, United Faculty President Becky Hawbaker said tenure is essential to higher education. 

“Tenure is absolutely foundational to the core mission of higher education,” she said. “The bills seem to assume that tenure means professors can say or do anything without any limits or accountability, and are never evaluated again, and that is simply not true.”

Wheeler said just because a professor has tenure, it doesn’t mean that they should be untouchable. 

“We’re simply looking at in the real world if you mess up, you should be fired,” he said. 

Hawbaker said even though the board is registered against tenure bills, they have not included language on tenure when it comes to the last three contract negotiations with United Faculty

Researchers at Iowa’s three public universities have helped combat the pandemic. In particular, the UI conducted a COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial, another reason to have job security at universities on a national level. 

“If you are a faculty member in another state coming to Iowa, with that legislation out there, even if it doesn’t pass, [it] can kind of set in and give you pause. They might think ‘do I even want to go there if it would pass the next year or the year after,’” Mascher said. 

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