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Letter to the editor: Top 10 ways tenure benefits students and all Iowans

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The Old Capitol Building on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. — Zak Neumann/Little Village
By Lois Cox, Clinical Professor of Law Emerita, University of Iowa; and Katherine Tachau, Professor of History Emerita, University of Iowa, for the AAUP chapters at The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and The University of Northern Iowa

Many things, large and small, have changed over the last four years. World leaders have come and gone. Important books have been written. Our planet has experienced a pandemic. We have both retired.

But some things don’t change. The opening of the Iowa legislative session sees the introduction of a bill by Senator Brad Zaun proposing the abolition of tenure at our state’s public universities. To date, this year’s version has advanced from the House education sub-committee to the full committee. Chapters of the American Association of University Professors at all three of Iowa’s state universities oppose the bill. AAUP’s reasons for opposing it remain much as they were four years ago. Here they are as published in February 2017, the top ten ways tenure benefits students and all Iowans:

10. Tenure promotes stability. It enables the development of communities of scholars who devote themselves to the long-term pursuit of new knowledge and ongoing mentoring of students and beginning scholars.

9. Tenure routinizes intensive evaluation of faculty members’ work. In the American academic community, tenure is a sign that a scholar has completed scholarly work at the highest level. To gain it, emerging scholars willingly undergo a series of grueling reviews of their scholarship, teaching, and service. If successful in earning tenure, they can expect ongoing annual evaluations and intensive periodic post-tenure reviews in order to maintain it.

8. Tenure permits independent inquiry. It ensures an environment in which scholars pursue research and innovation, and arrive at reliable, evidence-based conclusions free from commercial or political pressure.

7. Tenure encourages first-rate teaching. It permits scholars to bring their findings and research methods directly into the classroom, informing and inspiring Iowa’s future scholars and community leaders.

6. Tenure promotes effective faculty recruitment and retention. Were tenure to be prohibited, Iowa public universities would have a difficult time attracting and retaining the most promising teachers and scholars to work in our state and teach our students.

5. Tenure helps the economy. It is not, as some claim, a “job for life.” A tenured professor may be discharged for malfeasance or, sometimes, for financial exigency. Yet the security tenure provides is valuable and induces many highly credentialed scholars and professionals to forgo more highly paid employment elsewhere in industry or the private sector to work here in Iowa, teaching our future community leaders.

4. Tenure fosters students’ creativity and analytical skills. In classrooms led by faculty insulated from commercial and political pressures, students may examine important issues from a variety of perspectives and arrive at conclusions based on information and their own values.

3. Tenure advantages Iowa communities. It encourages scholars to contribute their expertise to the communities in which they live when issues related to their work arise, because they may do so without political or commercial pressures. An example of this could be seen in Flint, Michigan as issues with polluted water arose.

2. Tenure increases the value of Iowa degrees. It enhances the academic standing and economic value of degrees from Iowa’s public universities in national and international markets. Currently, Iowa’s universities are of such stature that they attract international attention from leaders of industry and the professions as well as academics. If Iowa were to prohibit tenure and be hampered in its efforts to hire and retain the most promising professors, regard for graduates of Iowa’s public universities would decline accordingly.

And the Number 1 reason tenure benefits students and all Iowans: Tenure is indispensable to academic freedom. It allows professors the independence to do the best work they are capable of doing without fear that they will be fired for their opinions or conclusions.

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