Why Would Iowa Want to Kill Tenure?

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Mark Kauzlarich, Bloomberg Via Getty Images

By Eric Kelderman

Not long after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mary Sue Coleman’s family moved from Georgia to Iowa.

Lawmakers in Georgia were considering eliminating public schools to avoid racial integration. That prompted Coleman’s father, who taught chemistry at Georgia Teachers College, which is now Georgia Southern University, to take a job at the Iowa State Teachers College, in Cedar Falls, which is now the University of Northern Iowa.

At the time, Iowa’s public schools and colleges had a great reputation, said Coleman, who pursued a long career as a scientist and higher-education administrator. She served as president at the University of Iowa from 1995 to 2002.

Nearly 70 years later, Coleman and others are concerned that the three public universities in Iowa are under threat of losing the very good name that has attracted students and scholars for decades.

Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature is considering a bill to eliminate tenure at the state’s three public universities — Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa. The bill is nothing new; similar versions have been introduced for several years running, never to advance further than that. But this year, the bill passed a full committee vote for the first time.

The bill’s odds of passage are still slim. But it has put Iowa at the forefront of the decades-long battle against higher education by conservative legislators — an assault that may be supercharged by the cultural grievances of the Trump era. As in other states, Republican lawmakers argue that colleges are squelching views that don’t hew to progressive ideals of gender, racial, and economic equity.

The bill to kill tenure is necessary, legislators have said, so institutions can fire faculty members who discriminate against students expressing conservative political views — though the handful of examples they cite rarely involve a tenured faculty member.

The elected officials leading this effort misunderstand the purpose and protections of tenure, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In eliminating it, she said, lawmakers are undermining the very freedom of speech that they seek to protect. “If you can lose your job for taking a political stance that’s different from the majority of the legislature, that would have a chilling effect.”

How could this happen in a state that for so long proclaimed its pride in public higher education? The real problem in Iowa isn’t just the views of faculty, said David Yepsen, a former political columnist for The Des Moines Register, it’s the state’s changing demographics and political climate, and an electorate who feel left behind and embattled by change.

“We export kids and pigs,” said Yepsen. “A kid grows up, gets an education, and leaves,” he said. That has led to a rural population that is older and whiter and less supportive of higher education: “What academics do on tenure can be arcane and weird for the common people.”

The people who are left behind develop “a real hunkered-down view that our way of life and views are under attack from the outside,” Yepsen said. “That becomes a rallying cry for many things.”

The Hawkeye State used to be known for the high quality of its public schools and a sort of Midwestern “nice” that was, if not exactly welcoming, based on a sort of moderately conservative view that gave new people a chance.

In the mid-1970s, then-Gov. Robert D. Ray, a Republican who led the state for 14 years, created a resettlement program to bring some 2,600 refugees of the Vietnam war to the state. Ray, who briefly served as interim president of Drake University, a private institution in Des Moines, after retiring from politics, was a moderate who also loosened restrictions on abortion and supported the Equal Rights Amendment and other progressive ideas.

Since then, the state has gotten slightly more diverse, but politically far less welcoming. The program to bring in South Asian refugees would be hard to imagine under the state’s current Republican leadership, said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake.

While the state’s population has grown slightly over recent decades, the urban areas have accumulated all of that growth while the rural areas have hollowed out. And the very slow population growth has cost the state two congressional seats since 1990, Goldford said, as other parts of the country grew much faster.

Between 1980 and 2015, just 10 of the state’s 99 counties have maintained populations of more than 100,000, according to state figures. Over the same period, the number of counties with populations of less than 10,000 grew from 15 to 24. Nearly all of the state’s population growth has come from international immigrants, according to a study by the state legislature, but more than 90 percent of the state still identifies as white, according to figures from the U.S. Census.

Despite the demographic changes, the state’s political power has shifted from more populous and diverse populations to the more rural and homogenous parts of the state, especially northwestern Iowa.

At the same time, the Republican Party’s focus has changed from fiscal issues to culture battles, said Goldford. “The focus is on religious liberty by evangelicals who have adopted the perspective of a minority who they think are under siege.”

To some degree, lawmakers in Des Moines are reflecting a list of common complaints about higher education coming from constituents, including the amount of money universities spend on new construction, the number of teaching assistants that are used in the classroom, and student debt.

Underlying those concerns is a persistent misconception that tenure gives faculty members a blank check with no accountability. “I don’t think anyone in our universities should be guaranteed a job,” state Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from a Des Moines suburb, said in a January 29 radio interview.

Zaun, who attended Ellsworth Community College and Grand View University, then Grand View College, in Des Moines, went on to complain about “all the sabbaticals and all the ridiculous things that we grant for a study of a beetle having sex or whatever, or a bicycle.”

Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said Iowa legislators have been swept up in the national wave of populism and anti-intellectualism. “Higher education is often used as a punching bag at times of fiscal austerity,” he said, and “now people are under stress again, and higher ed makes an easy target.”

Coleman, who also served as president at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said that economic uncertainty has led to a general anxiety and distrust of those seen as outsiders — such as faculty members and students who come from other countries. “As our society becomes more diverse,” she said, “others are worried about losing their status. People are scared of immigrants and people who don’t look like them.”

“The thing that is such a conundrum for me,” Coleman said, “is when you look at public opinion, people widely recognize that medical advances are because of research universities. Farmers probably appreciate” all the agricultural research that Iowa State University is doing, she said.

But the farmers and tradespeople that live in Iowa also have a perception that academics look down on them and don’t respect what they do, said Goldford, the political scientist at Drake University.

The public’s misunderstandings about higher education aren’t entirely their fault, said Pasquerella of the AAC&U. Higher education has done a poor job of helping people understand the connection between colleges and their communities, she said.

The average citizen may not have an idea about how higher education works, but those who have been elected to manage the state’s affairs have less of an excuse. “The people who are often proposing this kind of legislation know better because they’ve been privileged to receive this kind of education,” she said. “And ask them where their children are going to college.”

Kevin Gannon, a professor of history at Grand View University, said legislators are amplifying the public’s misconceptions for their own political gain. “They’re legislating with no clear understanding, or they don’t care because it sells to the voters,” he said. “They’ve weaponized legislation, they’re attacking vulnerable communities, and they wrap themselves in a culture-warrior flag.”

Whatever lawmakers’ motivations, eliminating tenure is unlikely to solve many of the problems that they point to and could make some things worse, including the protection of free speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has often advocated for the free-speech rights of conservative faculty members and students, has written repeatedly in support of preserving academic freedom through tenure.

“Legislators should be mindful of the potential harms caused when their involvement in the operation of higher education goes beyond providing funding, setting general graduation requirements, or instituting measures that ensure institutions under their authority are respecting and promoting the civil liberties of students and faculty,” wrote Joe Cohn in a recent analysis of several state bills aimed at reining in higher education.

Eliminating tenure could also weaken the institutions, as well as the state, financially, said Kevin C. Kregel, provost at the University of Iowa. The university brings in more than $500 million for sponsored research, and the overall financial contribution to the state is estimated at more than $6 billion, Kregel said.

That argument is the one that is likely to stall the effort to kill tenure this session, said state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University is located. Quirmbach credited Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen for rallying the state’s major agricultural groups to oppose the bill. “The agricultural industry in this state understands and appreciates how ag-related research benefits their industries,” he said.

Even if the effort to end tenure dies this year, it is likely to re-emerge in coming years. There are also several other bills aimed at scrutinizing political activity and academic content at the public universities.

Some of these amount to little more than bureaucratic wastes of time, Quirmbach said, such as requiring the Board of Regents to survey employees’ political beliefs.

Another bill would require the universities to make course syllabi available online for two years. A second bill would require the institutions to appoint a director of public events to make sure that guest speakers represent a balanced range of political views.

Yet a third bill mirrors efforts in other states, and an executive order by former President Donald J. Trump, seeking to eliminate training that emphasizes diversity and inclusion and any mention of systemic racism.

All of those are also likely to fail, but some fear the reputational damage to the state and its universities will continue.

“It’s worse in Iowa than any other place,” said Coleman, the former president at Iowa. “Forcing employees to declare their political party? This is crazy. What in the world happened?”

Eric Kelderman covers issues of power, politics, and purse strings in higher education. You can email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com, or find him on Twitter @etkeld.

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