Opinion | Academic tenure is under attack for all the wrong reasons

Republicans are more interested in waging unserious fights than actual reform.


Jerod Ringwald

The Iowa House convenes during the first day of the 90th Iowa legislative session at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The house swore in Pat Grassley as speaker of the house.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

After successfully gutting the public education system, it seems Iowa Republicans have set their eyes on ruining higher education.

In previous legislative sessions, Iowa Republicans entertained the idea of prohibiting tenure at the state’s flagship institutions — including the University of Iowa. These bills have been introduced several times and made it out of committee since the 2021 legislative session.

While these bills have not become law yet, the persistent Republican efforts to target tenure are cause for concern.

The most recent proposed bill, House File 48, would not only alienate academic faculty but also degrade scholarship and research that is critical to improving our lives.

Instead, tenure should be reformed in a way that lowers the barriers of entry for those who have obtained a doctorate so academic institutions can improve the quality of education and research output.

The Republican rationale for eliminating tenure revolves around the idea that giving a professor a permanent position grants them cover to discriminate against students for their political viewpoints. In particular, Republicans are concerned that professors are indoctrinating students with left-wing anti-American ideologies and silencing conservative voices.

Republicans have also proposed that the Iowa Legislature should monitor university professors to make sure they are complying with proposed Republican standards.

This is wrong for two reasons. First, college professors are not actually indoctrinating their students in left-wing politics. Second, putting students under state surveillance would be a clear violation of privacy rights.

The Republican bills against tenure do not work to improve the atmosphere for colleges because it is focused on subjugating academics to the will of the state GOP. That being said, there is an opportunity to improve tenure.

Work in the field of labor economics shows that labor protections give protections to workers from losing their jobs in the event of an economic downturn or potential cost-cutting measures by firms. This results in high wages for workers.

At the same time, labor protections also lead to high barriers of entry for workers. This does not allow for competition and increases in productivity from taking place in a labor market, as they prevent firms from opening the number of jobs in a firm.

In other words, those with labor protections are incentivized to be less productive.

Tenure in its current form operates similarly to this principle. Although academic positions are highly specialized at universities, there are some distinct advantages to tenure that allow professors to take on more risky research.

Simply put, job security guarantees that professors have the backing to conduct forward thinking research that benefits their institutions. For example, when faculty were granted tenure in the pharmacy discipline, it was found that the number of academic papers published increased, indicating that research output also increased. This has been found to be true in many other fields as well.

That is not to say that tenure cannot be improved. Legislation that would make it easier for academics with doctorate degrees to become professors is a necessity. This would greatly improve academic institutions in the state and allow for other potential professors to pursue their research goals and increase knowledge.

Unfortunately, the Republican bill does not attempt to improve tenure.

The legislation is meant to settle political scores involving apocryphal statements from conservative students. Tenure is a necessary part of our higher education system, and we need to maintain it in some basic form.

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.