Iowa legislators seek sweeping changes in bid to combat ‘anti-conservative bias’ at universities


In the new Iowa legislation, it is prohibited to teach that Iowa or the United States is systemically racist. 

Michael Craighton and Mallory Tope

Republicans in Iowa’s state legislature have advanced a number of bills seeking to exert greater control over the state’s three Regents Universities, many of which are aimed at combating what some lawmakers see as a bias against conservative viewpoints on campus. 

First among these are a proposal that would ban tenure for professors and a call for the Board of Regents to survey the political affiliations of faculty. 

The state legislature is also seeking the authority to review any university expenditures made from non-state funds and require instructors to post syllabi on the internet to be publicly accessible. Another bill would prohibit any public schools, primary through post-secondary, from teaching curriculum drawing from the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative calling heightened attention to the role slavery played in the United States’ history.

A number of incidents involving administration, faculty and student organizations are pointed to by Republicans as examples of anti-conservative bias and attempts to limit conservative free speech on university campuses.

The dean of Iowa’s College of Dentistry recently had to issue an apology for threatening disciplinary action against a student for defending the Trump administration’s executive orders halting training about unconscious bias. The University of Northern Iowa’s student government sought to prohibit granting sanctioned status to an anti-abortion organization in October.

At Iowa State, questions of anti-conservative bias were raised when an English professor’s syllabus threatened to dismiss students engaged in “othering,” which was defined to include political views opposed to abortion, gay marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement. A tweet by the ISU College Republicans also resulted in public backlash from faculty and students, although the university ultimately declined to take action against the organization.

“It is part of a larger package of the state legislature letting the higher education institutions know that they’re not happy,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. “The problem is that all of these are a solution searching for a problem.” 

Among the various higher education bills proposed this session, Democratic lawmakers and university administrators see the elimination of tenure as the one posing the greatest threat to higher education in Iowa.

“The freedom to pursue intellectual interest without fear or favor is the cornerstone of all great universities,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, a former Iowa State professor who opposes the bill. 

Tenure, while not the lifetime appointment that opponents suggest, protects research faculty from retaliation for pursuing controversial lines of research and enables academic freedom, according to the American Association of University Professors. According to Iowa State’s faculty handbook, professors are still able to be fired for cause, program termination or for financial reasons.

Oftentimes, freedom and security to pursue research is what draws many academics into academia rather than into the private sector. Without tenure, Kedrowski said it’s almost certain Iowa’s universities would see an exodus of experienced faculty, as those with and those seeking tenure would likely leave. Whatever new professors are attracted would likely be new, with far less experience.

“If we are not able to recruit those leading minds, they’re not going to be in the classroom, they’re not going to be mentoring students and they’re not going to be overseeing student organizations,” Kedrowski said. “They’re not going to be here for our students to get to know and interact with.”

The loss of tenured faculty would also impede the ability of the university to conduct valuable research and deprive students of the opportunity to gain that experience.

“The bill would have huge implications for the reputation and standing of the university,” Quirmbach said. “Down the line, what’s an Iowa State degree going to be worth if the university tumbles into insignificance?”

An accompanying bill, introduced by Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, would require the Board of Regents to survey all employees at the three state universities about their political party affiliation. The results would be aggregated and separated by job description, without identifying individuals, and must be submitted to the General Assembly by the end of the year.

Kedrowski said the bill may be an attempt to determine if any widespread bias exists within the university, while Quirmbach called it a “bureaucratic waste of time” because any individual’s party affiliation is a matter of public record already.

“By putting this into legislation, it has the impact of intimidating people, faculty and institutions,” Kedrowski said. 

While similar legislation was proposed, and ultimately failed, in Oklahoma with the aim to ensure an ideological balance through a “one Republican per Democrat” hiring quota, no such accompanying explanation for the data’s use was given in Iowa’s bill. 

“It’s not entirely clear why members of the state legislature might want to do this,” Kedrowski said.

Carol Faber, associate professor of graphic design and president of the Faculty Senate, presented the bills during the body’s meeting Tuesday but did not discuss them further. Faber, along with the Office of the Provost, Iowa State’s chief academic officer, declined to comment on the bills, deferring to the Board of Regents.

Josh Lehman, senior communications director for the Board of Regents, echoed Kedrowski and Quirmbach’s concerns about the impact eliminating tenure would have on Iowa’s university system.

“Our institutions have rigorous accountability procedures in place and conduct annual reviews of faculty at all levels, including tenured faculty,” Lehman said. “These reviews ensure all faculty members continue to perform well in faculty activities.”

Lehman said the Board was monitoring the political affiliation survey and will follow its language if it moves forward.

While the onslaught of bills aimed at restricting the Regents Universities is unusual, this is not the first time a bill targeting tenure has been introduced in Iowa. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, introduced this session’s tenure bill and has launched previous efforts to eliminate the traditional academic practice.

“Zaun is famous for and Republicans are famous for introducing bills like tenure and term limits but know they won’t go anywhere,” said Kelly Shaw, associate teaching professor of political science. “They introduce bills knowing full well they won’t get through … to claim they were willing to do it.”

Neither Zaun nor Carlin responded to repeated requests for comment.

“I think they’re two terrible pieces of legislation and a huge waste of legislative time,” Quirmbach said. “We have a lot more important things to do.”