Sinclair: Ending tenure won’t help anyone

Isaac Sinclair

At universities nationwide, professors are given platforms to do important research and educate the next generation of ambitious students. An essential part of this platform is tenure.

Academic tenure allows professors to do research that may be controversial or politically unpopular, without worrying about being punished or fired. It gives them protection when they push the boundaries in order to improve human knowledge. Tenure insulates professors from control from any other higher political or economic individuals or institutions.

Tenure also allows universities to be competitive when hiring professors. Having a high level of job security attracts more qualified individuals and improves the level of education and research that happens at every university.

However, there has been a bill, SF 41, that was introduced to the Iowa Legislature this year that is calling for the end of tenure in Iowa. The bill would specifically “prohibit the establishment or continuation of a tenure system at the regents universities.” This bill was proposed by Republican Senator Brad Zaun, who views getting rid of tenure as a positive for the state of Iowa.

Zaun stated that this bill would give universities the “flexibility to hire and fire professors” and he went on to say that he doesn’t “think that bad professors should have a lifetime position.” Clearly, Zaun doesn’t fully understand what tenure is or how it is earned.

A big misconception of tenure is that it gives a professor a lifetime position in which they cannot be fired from. In reality, tenure provides a due process for professors when being fired. Professors with tenure can be fired, but the university can’t do so without “presenting evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally.” Tenure is protection for professors to maintain the integrity of their research, but it is not protection for being a poor professor or acting in an inappropriate manner.

Firing a professor with tenure is difficult, and it is that way on purpose. Earning tenure doesn’t happen overnight, so taking it away shouldn’t happen overnight either.

Professors that are awarded tenure have earned it. They are not lazy individuals who just happened to fall into the position of a professor with tenure. At a minimum, professors must have a doctoral degree in their academic field and some research or publication experience to become a professor at a university. Then there is a probationary period of employment where you may or may not obtain tenure. Much of that decision relies on your contributions to your field and if other, already tenured professors recommend you to become a professor with tenure.

Zaun’s ideas of increasing flexibility for universities to fire bad professors with tenure is absurd. Universities can already fire tenured professors and tenured professors have clearly put in the time and effort to earn their tenure. I doubt that there are very many, if any, bad professors with tenure. And if their is, the university must go through the proper process to fire them.

Along with the firing of tenured professors, Iowa universities will lose an edge when hiring quality professors. If individuals are looking at almost identical positions, but one offers them tenure and the other does not, their decision is made for them. They will go to the university that gives them tenure. If Iowa lost the ability to grant tenure, we would lose our ability to hire high quality professors and our universities would suffer because of this.

Zaun, whether through pure incompetence or blissful ignorance, refuses to see the core idea behind tenure and the benefits it provides professors, universities and society. I firmly oppose SF 41 and ending tenure in Iowa, or in any state for that matter.

Although I doubt that SF 41 will be passed, with key Republican leaders like Bruce Rastetter — the president of the Board of Regents — opposing the bill, there is still a fair chance that it could be. The 2016 election gave the Republicans the majority in both the Iowa House and Senate, so Zaun and the Republicans have the support they need to get it passed. Republicans have the numbers, but hopefully common sense and the benefits of tenure outweigh those numbers. Tenure provides, and should continue to provide, an enormous benefit to Iowan universities and the work that is done here.