Iowa lawmakers advance bills that would kill tenure at public universities

Dive Brief:

  • Two bills advancing through Iowa’s legislature would end the system of tenure at the state’s three public universities.
  • House and Senate committees have recommended the passage of separate but nearly identical versions of the proposed legislation, both of which call for prohibiting “the establishment or continuation of a tenure system” at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.
  • This isn’t Iowa’s first run at ending tenure, and other states, including Kansas, have recently attempted to weaken such protections.

Dive Insight:

The legislative text of both measures states colleges may terminate any employee for reasons other than “just cause, program discontinuance, and financial exigency.” Those are the three conditions under which the American Association of University Professors says administrators can lay off tenured faculty. 

Faculty, the bills continue, shall be employed at the discretion of deans and the president “as necessary to carry out the academic duties and responsibilities of the college.” This runs counter to typical shared governance principles for removing tenured faculty. 

They also call for the universities to “adopt a written statement” spelling out their employee agreements, annual performance reviews, “minimum standards of good practice” and standards for review and discipline of faculty members. Schools’ policies around dismissal for cause, program discontinuance and financial exigency would also be included.

Tenure is largely viewed as a protected status that allows faculty members to conduct their work without being beholden to outside entities. 

Eliminating tenure takes away “the kind of safeguards that allow for the presumption of continued employment,” said Mark Criley, program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP. “That means that faculty will constantly need to be thinking about the way that the administration, the board and legislators are responding to the way they carry out their duty. And that’s inimical to academic freedom.”

Several Iowa industry groups and board of regents lobbyists have opposed the measures, according to local media reports. They wouldn’t apply to faculty members whose contracts began before July 1, 2021, but they would affect renewals on or after that date.  

This is the third time in nearly as many years that Iowa’s lawmakers have moved to end tenure at the state’s universities, The Gazette reported. The latest attempt follows a policy change by the Kansas board of regents earlier this year that would give the state’s public colleges an alternative option for terminating tenured employees that doesn’t require a declaration of financial exigency.

AAUP is investigating a number of schools over changes made as a result of pandemic-related budget pressures that could pose a threat to tenure and other aspects of shared governance.

Josh Lehman, a spokesperson for the Iowa Board of Regents, wrote in an email Tuesday that it opposes the bills. “Tenure allows our institutions to recruit and retain the best faculty to teach, do research and provide service to advance the institutional missions of Iowa’s public universities,” Lehman wrote.  

Demetri Morgan, a higher education professor at Loyola University Chicago, said the GOP’s nationwide recalibration following this election cycle could result in such challenges to colleges in conservative states going further than they have in the past. “These attacks on tenure are a low-hanging fruit,” Morgan said. 

Whereas the policy change in Kansas appeared to try to give schools a way to address financial concerns, while also disrupting tenure, he said, the situation in Iowa is different: “This one, for me at least, reads as much more partisan, much more openly politically performative and less rooted in an economic or financial emergency.”

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