Thomas R. O'Donnell

Save tenure; save science; save Iowa education

In University research on March 3, 2021 at 7:35 am
Campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, one of the state regents institutions that a tenure ban would devastate. Credit: University of Northern Iowa.

The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, one of the state regents institutions that a tenure ban would devastate. Credit: University of Northern Iowa.

With complete control of the governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly, the Iowa Republican Party passed some terrible anti-science, anti-intellectual bills last year, in a pandemic-shortened session.

But that doesn’t compare with what they’re attempting this year.

The GOP increased its majority in both houses in the 2020 election, apparently emboldening its caucus. Besides further restricting voting, they’re considering expanding exemptions for vaccinations and forbidding businesses – even hospitals and clinics – from requiring vaccines for employees.

But the worst of a bad bunch might be the attempt to ban tenure, the policy that helps protect academic freedom, at the state universities.

What would it mean for Iowa?

The legislature has considered tenure bans before, but the bills never got out of committee. Now enough Republicans apparently are aggrieved about a perceived liberal slant among faculty, poor handling of complaints from conservative students and bad judgment among a few instructors that a proposal actually could come to the House floor. House File 496 has passed the full Education Committee, keeping it alive past this week’s funnel deadline

The odds of a tenure ban actually becoming law are still slim. A host of Iowa business organizations and commodity groups oppose it. But it represents a threat to the state’s economy and educational status.

I worked with Dan Chibnall, science librarian and faculty member at Drake University, and other volunteers from Science Iowa to compose the following opinion piece. It spells out why eliminating tenure is a terrible idea.

We’d probably all like to have a job from which we couldn’t be fired. We could neglect our duties and ignore our bosses without consequence.

Maybe this is how some Iowans view tenure, the academic system that lets professors – like those at Iowa’s three state universities – pursue research and ideas that run counter to economic interests or express opinions that make politicians uncomfortable.

But the image of a lazy, entitled workforce is false. University faculty can be fired for a range of causes, including unacceptable performance, serious policy and ethics violations or financial limits.

Gaining tenure doesn’t mean professors take it easy. They face performance reviews from students, administrators and fellow faculty. To advance and gain merit pay increases, faculty must teach, produce research and serve citizens and their profession.

Tenure opponents want Iowans to think otherwise, to resent the staff that educates their children well and to discard a longstanding system that has served Iowans well.

These foes of free thought are coming after tenure again, and the bills they sponsor, Senate File 41 and House File 496, have advanced further than ever before.

If they succeed, we’ll live in the only state that doesn’t give faculty this protection. Iowa will become a science and education backwater. Top researchers and experts will avoid the state, creating a drought of new minds and new ideas. Eliminating tenure would damage vital education and research, especially in agriculture at Iowa State University and medicine at the University of Iowa. If the state wants to remain a leader in key disciplines that support vital economic interests, these bills cannot pass. 

Science Iowa, Iowans who advocate for research in the public interest and evidence-based policies, wants voters to understand these bills’ ramifications. They represent a misunderstanding of the tenure system. They will damage the state’s standing in education, accelerate the exodus of young people and damage our economy. Organizations opposing these bills include the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, the Iowa Chamber Alliance and the Iowa Business Council.

Without tenure, the quality of education Iowa’s young people receive at the University of Northern Iowa, ISU and UI will degrade. The best professors will avoid the state to take positions where tenure lets them pursue research – which informs and improves their teaching – without fear of political or economic retribution. Students’ critical thinking skills will suffer. Education would be less progressive and more doctrinaire.

Students’ critical thinking skills will suffer. Education would be less progressive and more doctrinaire.

Enrollment will decline as our universities fall in national rankings, with fewer faculty conducting leading-edge research and sharing that knowledge with Iowans and students. The state’s already damaging brain drain will accelerate as in-state students seek higher-quality education and employment elsewhere. We would lose talented graduate students, the next generation of researchers to improve our lives and health.

Without tenure, Iowa institutions also will be at a disadvantage in attracting diverse faculty from varying ethnic, economic, gender and ability groups, further damaging research and faculty and student recruitment.

As universities struggle to attract or retain faculty, programs Iowans count on, such as ISU’s Extension Service or University Hospitals and Clinics, will gradually degrade and may disappear. UNI will produce fewer educators with poorer training.

These outreach and service arms of the universities rely on the unbiased research tenure enables. At ISU, faculty study soil and conservation practices – research that may threaten the economic interests of the chemical industry or corporate agriculture. At the University of Iowa, medical researchers seek cures that may undercut pharmaceutical companies or question existing treatments. And at all the Regents universities, tenure protects faculty – from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum – who speak truth to power.

Tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion or a ticket to riches. It takes as many as eight years of grinding work to achieve. Professors must already have a strong record to get even a probationary appointment. Their fellow professors and administrators regularly review the candidate’s teaching, research and service (to the state and to their profession). They must publish regularly and attract grants to support their research. They often bear a heavy teaching load. If they fail to establish a record of excellence and impact, they won’t receive tenure – and will likely leave the university. The system ensures that only the best researchers and teachers get tenure.

Professors make mistakes, like setting controversial limits on class discussion. But such errors are rare. And yes, they sometimes say things that upset politicians. But it’s the faculty’s role to call conventional views into question. That’s what tenure protects.


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