New Iowa law restricting ‘divisive’ concepts concerns ISU faculty with unclear application


Postal workers holding an “End Systemic Racism” sign at the BLM Unity March and Rally in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Jack Nichols

With the newly enacted Iowa law House File 802, state-funded schools may no longer teach mandatory training or classes that involve a list of 10 “divisive” concepts, including that Iowa or the U.S. is systematically racist or sexist.

But some critics of the law say the language and applicability is unclear. Iowa State has an FAQ page covering House File 802, but political science professor Dave Peterson says there are numerous issues that are still unclear.

“The FAQ posted by the provost provides some guidance but, in my opinion, doesn’t go far enough,” Peterson said. “The standards for what counts as ‘mandatory’ are fairly clear. Or at least it is clear for the courses I teach. The second issue of if the content is germane to the course is much more ambiguous. One could argue that it is germane to any political science class, or that students who are political science majors have a reasonable expectation that it would be part of the course material.”

Peterson also stressed that it is very important for educators and faculty to have clarity over what they can and cannot allow.

“If I were to include a lecture on systemic racism in one of my required courses, would I be in jeopardy with the university?” Peterson asked. “Leaving it vague creates a pretty clear chilling effect on faculty. If there is uncertainty about what is allowed and what is not, with the possibility of dismissal for violating the university’s interpretation of the law, it will likely lead to many faculty self-censoring in the classroom. I am not really sure why the administration isn’t providing more guidance for what counts as ‘germane’ and how the university will handle complaints that faculty are in violation of this rule. It is particularly odd since the University of Iowa has been much clearer about this.”

Another clarity issue is whether “mandatory” classes pertain to major- or student-wide required courses, since the law does not describe what “mandatory staff or student training” is. Peterson said he believes it is for required classes for majors, but he has heard both sides.

“Political Science 101 and 301, which are the two required courses for the degree program, appear to be covered according to the FAQ,” Peterson said. “I’ve been told in other conversations that it is only for courses required of all undergraduates, but I think the FAQ is clear about this. I am updating my course for the fall, so the lack of clarity is making it more difficult to update the lectures and other content.”

Rob Schweers, a spokesperson for the provost’s office, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that the university is taking a cautious approach to the new law regarding the lack of clarity in the language. 

“Because HF 802 is a new law, many of the terms and provisions contained in the legislation are currently being interpreted,” Schweers said. “As a public university supported by the state and its taxpayers, Iowa State University has an absolute responsibility to comply with both the letter and spirit of the law.”

But laws that target college curriculum can have several negative impacts on the quality of education, according to Peterson.

“First, it may lead faculty to make suboptimal decisions about the content of their courses,” Peterson said. “Rather than teach the most appropriate content and content that is most valuable for our students, it can lead faculty to choose lesser material out of fear of reprisal. Second, I am still concerned about how this will play out for the U.S. diversity requirement. I am afraid that the changes that are going to be made by whatever group is responsible for revisiting the reforms approved by the Faculty Senate will make the requirement worse. Third, it is going to hurt with recruitment and retention of students and faculty.”