Iowa Legislature fails to pass bill prohibiting tenure

Iowa States Campanile photographed after a heavy snow.

Iowa State’s Campanile photographed after a heavy snow.

Members of Iowa State University faculty say tenure encourages academic freedom as opposed to stifling speech, after a ban on tenure failed in the Iowa legislature for the second time since 2020.

According to reporting from the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, chaired a House Education subcommittee that proposed House File 48, which prohibits the establishment or continuation of a tenure system in Iowa’s Regent universities.

Holt said he will not likely bring the bill forward again but that he hopes universities and faculty “take the message back.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch reported the bill was proposed due to concerns that tenured professors were stifling free speech for conservative students.

Raj Agnihotri, a tenured professor in marketing, said tenure has more to do with the research side of the university than the classroom. While tenure adds a form of job security for professors, it has little impact on the professor’s relationship with students.

Agnihotri said if there are professors who intentionally suppress opposing points of view, it is more of an individual problem than a systemic one. Banning tenure in public universities would do little to impact classroom conduct; instead, it would affect the university’s ability to facilitate meaningful research, according to Agnihotri.

“So, I think tenure is really important because it gives that academic freedom to really do innovative things and to explore ideas where nobody else would pay attention,” Agnihotri said. “I think that’s the core of academic freedom.”

Agnihotri said many people think of tenure as a title that enables a professor or scholar to take it easy and stop doing their job. Instead, Agnihotri said tenure represents the beginning of a true scholar’s career.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t get evaluated,” Agnihotri said. “We go to annual performance appraisal at the department level, at the college level [and] at the university level.”

Agnihotri said the main difference between tenure and term faculty is tenured faculty have the ability to focus on what they believe matters most.

“Tenure enables an individual faculty member to enable the students and others to speak their minds, create a free discussion, open platform kind of environment in the classroom,” Agnihotri said. “But irrespective of this whole tenure thing, if somebody has it or not, I don’t think how an individual faculty operates in a classroom changes much.”

Agnihotri said the proposed bill is more effective in damaging the conversation around universities than it is in promoting free speech.

“It perceptually damages the conversation at the national level,” Agnihotri said, “but I think if we continue to drum this up or beat this up, I think it sends a very bad signal.”

Dirk Deam, a teaching professor in political science, said tenure in universities represents the academic freedom to pursue subjects professors deem meaningful and relevant.

“Tenure was designed long ago to protect that, and so if you do away with tenure, one of the implications might be that you want the ability to not let people do whatever they want to, in terms of academic inquiry, and you want to be able to police that yourself,” Deam said.

Deam said freedom of speech is the idea that people can say and think what they want as well as combine perspectives to build toward a larger debate.

“You can’t describe this as being a free speech concern when what you’re really saying is, ‘I want to be able to say and think what I want, but I don’t want you to be able to say and think what you want,” Deam said. “That’s not free speech,” Deam said.

Deam said while it is an infraction of the First Amendment if a student is penalized for having a certain idea, there are better ways to approach the issue than to ban the tenure system altogether.

“I’m not so convinced that that’s what’s happening in most cases, as much as it is simply that maybe the student feels that way because they got a bad grade on an exam or they’ve been asked to read some author whose idea they don’t agree with,” Deam said. “So what? I mean, if all you ever do is read things that you agree with, you’re not gonna learn very much.”

Deam cited the 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v. California as an example of the Supreme Court upholding people’s rights to challenge opposing points of view.

“One of the things that they talk about in that case is you really don’t have a right to be not offended by speech, that’s not what the First Amendment is about,” Deam said. “You shouldn’t be so thin-skinned as to think that everybody else has to shut up in order to make you comfortable all the time.”