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Republican Lawmakers Want Tenure Banned At Iowa's Regents Universities

Christopher Gannon
Iowa State University
No organizations have registered in favor of the bill to ban tenure at the state's public universities. Several agriculture trade groups, unions and chambers of commerce have registered in opposition.

Republicans in the Iowa legislature are advancing bills that would ban professors from getting tenure at the state’s three regents universities because they say conservative students are beings silenced. Leaders at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa say the ban would make it harder to recruit and keep faculty.

Iowa would become the first state in the country to ban tenure at its regents universities if bills that have advanced in the Iowa Legislature were signed into law. GOP legislators who support the move say it’s about protecting the free speech of conservative students and making it easier to fire faculty. While similar legislation has been introduced in past legislative sessions, it has moved farther along this year.

Currently, there are no organizations registered in support of a bill that is eligible for debate in the Iowa House and a similar onethat moved out of a Senate subcommittee earlier this month.

Groups argue tenure helps research in Iowa

A little over a month into the coronavirus pandemic last year, there were major livestock concerns in Iowa, which is the country’s largest pork producing state. News organizations were reporting that more than 1.5 million hogs could be killed because farmers were running out of space to keep them as coronavirus outbreaks in pork processing plants slowed production.

The number could have been a lot higher if it weren’t for researchers at Iowa State University developing a nutrition strategy to slow the growth of pigs, said Iowa Pork Producers Association Public Policy Director Drew Mogler.

The Iowa Pork Producers Association is registered against the bills that would ban tenure because it helps attract the best and brightest professors and researchers to do that kind of work.

“Not having that relationship with [ISU] and not understanding Iowa’s pork industry and able to work with producers it’s very likely that that would not have rolled out so quickly,” Mogler said. “And not in a way our producers would have understood as easily.”

Other agriculture trade groups are also registered against the bills. So are chambers of commerce and workers' unions.

Science-grounded research from the regents universities can help bring organizations together around common understanding of what challenges face the state, said Iowa Environmental Council Executive Director Dr. Brian Campbell.

“If everybody has to do their own partisan research we come out with inadequate solutions and we come out less unified in our approach,” Campbell said. “Those universities have been and can hopefully continue to be the kind of place that has tremendous convening power.”

Chilling effect on campus recruitment

The presidents of the three regents universities pushed back against the bills earlier this month.

“I just won't be able to compete in the market and it won't be just the recruitment of the very best faculty for research, teaching and extension,” Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen said at a legislative appropriations subcommittee. “But I will lose faculty because they will see it as an embarrassment that they are now at an institution where tenure is prohibited.”

Kevin McClure is an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He says tenure is a mechanism to protect academic freedom at colleges, which he says is an extension of the First Amendment.

“If there is a desire to promote free speech on campus and to ensure that all political viewpoints are able to expressed an explored on college campuses," McClure said. "Eliminating tenure so that you can fire professors whose beliefs differ from yours runs contrary to that goal.”

Right now, the University of Iowa is looking for a new president and the University of Northern Iowa is searching for a new provost.

Scoring political points

There are no lobbyists registered in support of these bills at the Statehouse.

“We represent the students,” House Education Chair Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said this week on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River. “We don’t represent the lobbyists.”

Hite points to three recent instances at each of the colleges, including one at Iowa State University where a professor barred opposition to Black Lives Matter, gay marriage and abortion. There was also an instance at the University of Iowa dental college where college leadership condemned an executive order by former President Trump.

“One of the concerns we have is the, what in our mind, appears to be pretty coercive behavior from some professors who expect that their students will conform to their political ideology,” Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, said at a Senate subcommittee this month. “That's not something we want to see [and] certainly not something we're going to tolerate.”

Sen. Carlin recently announced he is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by fellow Republican Chuck Grassley. Grassley has not indicated whether he plans to run for an eighth term.

“I don’t believe eliminating tenure achieves very much but is effective at kind of scoring political points amongst constituents that may not have a great handle on what purpose tenure serves,” Kevin McClure said.

While this legislation might not make it to the governor’s desk, just the conversation happening in Des Moines could have a chilling effect on those campuses’ recruitment efforts.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.