DES MOINES — A bill that would end tenure for professors at the three state universities has cleared the first procedural hurdle in the Iowa Senate and key lawmakers say they want to “keep the conversation alive.” Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, said too many courses are being taught by teaching assistants rather than professors.
“My job is simple: look out for the kids, the students,” Zaun said Wednesday during a senate subcommittee meeting at the statehouse.
About 10 percent of classes at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are being led by teaching assistants. Keith Saunders, a lobbyist for the University of Iowa, said if the bill becomes law, Iowa would be the only state that does not offer tenure to professors at its public universities.
“This bill would really relegate Iowa to sort of the backwaters of higher education,” Saunders said. “…Faculty would avoid Iowa. I think it’s everyone’s goal to have the best and the brightest teaching our next generation, but they would not come here if tenure’s not available to them.”
Zaun questioned some of the sabbaticals professors have been granted for research outside the classroom and Zaun said, to him, tenure “pretty much guarantees” a professor can’t be fired.
“I recognize there is brilliant professors at our three public universities. I’m not picking on them,” Zaun said. “It’s just frustrating to me.”
Rachel Boon, the chief academic officer for the Iowa Board of Regents, said 25 tenured professors have been terminated or agreed to resign in the past decade.
“I want to make clear tenure is not a blanket guarantee of job security or immunity from termination,” Boon said.
The bill cleared a three-member senate subcommittee yesterday with the votes of Zaun and fellow Republican Jerry Behn, a state senator from Boone.
“I think the underlying goal of all of this is to do what’s best for the students,” Behn said. “After all, that’s why all the professors are there, so I think it’s important to keep the conversation alive.”
A similar bill has stalled in the senate in year’s past.
Tenure has existed for more than a century. The chief academic officer for the Iowa Board of Regents said tenure does protect professors who “make some people uncomfortable.”
“We can’t fire them because they do that really important work in an area that maybe makes the employer or some other external entity unhappy,” Boon said.
Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat, is a tenured Iowa State University professor and he told his colleagues this bill might lead to the suppression of research, like the “oleo” controversy of 1943. Iowa State economists suggested margarine compared favorably with butter and American should eat more of it because there was a shortage of butter for World War II soldiers. The dairy industry objected, the pro-margarine wording was retracted and 16 economics professors left Iowa State.
“That’s what happens when you challenge and undermine academic freedom,” Quirmbach said.
Two of the professors who left Iowa State over the oleo controversy later won the Nobel Prize for Economics.