Opinion | Eliminating tenure hurts higher education and democracy

While Iowan Republicans may claim tenure suppresses free speech, their only concern is eliminating speech they do not agree with.


Jenna Galligan

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

Hannah Pinski, Opinions Editor

It is not that surprising that Iowa Republicans are using the classic freedom of speech as an excuse to eliminate tenure. Although it seems patriotic on its surface, underneath is an argument that is a push for a personal agenda.

Since 2017, Iowa Republicans have slapped higher education across the face when it comes to tenure. At the time, Sen. Brad Zaun first introduced the infamous bill that would prohibit the “establishment of a tenure system at the regents universities.”

Although the bill died in committee, he reintroduced it in 2019 — and again it died in the committee.

And to no surprise, lawmakers reintroduced the bill again in 2021 for the third consecutive year. But this year, Senate File 41 advanced in the subcommittee on Feb. 11, making it one step closer to becoming law.

All three times, lawmakers faced opposition from the state Board of Regents and university officials.

But what’s different this time around? Iowa Republicans are advancing this bill partly in response to the UI College of Dentistry handling of a mass email thread and free speech concerns. Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, believes that disbanding the tenure review process would reduce instances of suppression of speech.

It’s bad enough that Iowa Republicans do not understand that tenure is not a life-long appointment, but it is worse that free speech gets used as a weapon against higher education.

Eliminating tenure would not only threaten the quality of higher education but also the strength of democratic ideals.

The Board of Regents argues that tenure creates an atmosphere that allows the free exchange of ideas that is necessary for education and democracy. If Iowan Republicans are concerned about free speech, then why would they want to get rid of something that fosters it?

The answer to that question is that they are only concerned about promoting speech they agree with. Now, they are using tenure as a method to achieve that.

How can we see that this is true? House File 222 would reduce funding for Iowa School Districts whose teachers include the 1619 Project — a retelling of America’s history from a Black perspective — in their curriculum.

Yet, they are crying out “freedom of speech” and playing the victim card when a student at the UI College of Dentistry was scheduled for a hearing for unprofessional behavior — not for his conservative views.

Iowa Republicans are not concerned with free speech. They are concerned with eliminating speech they do not like.

Now, they are using this incident as a weapon and tenure as the culprit against higher education. It is a bill that is being presented as a first amendment issue, but under the mask its purpose is for their personal political agenda.

The American Association of University Professors states that the benefits of tenure is that it allows academic freedom and lets professors work without fear that they will be fired for their beliefs.

Tenure cannot be labeled as a speech suppression issue as Iowan Republicans argue when its whole purpose is to enable academic freedom.

On the education side, multiple members of the UI and state Board of Regents argue against this bill because it allows institutions to recruit the best faculty, and its elimination would dismantle the infrastructure of the higher education system.

This bill cannot pass. Tenure is why the UI can function as a top-tier institution and a place where academic freedom thrives.

Iowa’s higher education institution system cannot be controlled on the basis of a personal agenda.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.