Eliminating tenure, identifying Democrats, controlling spending: Republican lawmakers seek to change Iowa’s universities

Downtown Iowa City, including the University of Iowa Pentacrest and Iowa River, from a plane, June 2018. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

An effort by Republicans in the state legislature to eliminate tenure at Iowa’s three public universities advanced this week, as the House Education Committee passed a bill to end tenure at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, and a Senate subcommittee approved the Senate version of that bill.

Tenure prevents college professors from being fired except for good cause or in cases where the college is facing a financial crisis severe enough to endanger its survival. It is intended to shield professors from political pressure, and allow for wide-ranging inquiry and free expression of ideas.

But Rep. Steve Holt, a Republican from Denison, told conservative newssite The Iowa Torch that he believes tenure is destroying the free expression of ideas at the state’s three regent universities, because professors who “believe they are untouchable because of tenure” are demanding “absolute conformity to their way of thinking.”

Holt, the sponsor of the House’s tenure elimination bill, already had a major success this legislative session. He was the floor manager for the anti-abortion amendment to the Iowa Constitution, which the House’s Republican majority approved on Jan. 27.

Republican Rep. Skyler Wheeler of Orange City echoed Holt’s claims when he spoke to the Torch about ending tenure.

“Tenure protects bad professors and those who completely mistreat students based on their sincerely held beliefs,” Wheeler said.

According to Wheeler, “Iowans are noticing the increasing radical leftism taking place, and attacks on conservatives at the universities they are funding. There are a lot of concerns on what is happening on the campuses and in the classrooms.”

Wheeler, who chaired the House subcommittee that approved the bill, explained his approach to governance to Little Village in 2018.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange County. — State of Iowa

“My worldview begins with the Bible and taking it in its literal form,” Wheeler said in an emailed response to questions. “Using the Bible as my compass, I come to conclusions that life is precious, marriage is one natural man and one natural woman, taxes should not be overbearing, and the government’s job is to reward those who abide by the law and punish those who do not. As a state legislator, I will use the Bible as my starting point for making decisions on what legislation I should support and which I should oppose.”

Proposals to eliminate tenure have becoming popular with rightwing groups around the country, who believe it is a way to prevent what they consider leftist domination in higher education. No state has yet eliminated tenure, or even brought bills to do so to floor votes in their legislatures, although lawmakers in Wisconsin and Missouri have introduced such bills in recent years. The bills were dropped, however, out of concern that they would do severe damage to the ability of state university to attract and retain top-tier scholars.

“If this bill were to pass, many of our best and brightest would leave,” Keith Sanders, a lobbyist representing the Iowa Board of Regents told members of the Senate subcommittee considering that chamber’s version of the bill on Thursday. “It would make Iowa an educational backwater that no one would want to be associated with in higher education.”

Both the House and Senate bills are opposed by the Board of Regents, all of whose members were appointed by either Gov. Branstad or Gov. Reynolds. They are also opposed by other groups, ranging from the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa to the Iowa Pork Producers Association to the Iowa Medical Association.

So far, no group has registered in support of either bill. That, however, did not stop the Senate subcommittee from approving the bill on Thursday, or the House Education Committee from voting in favor of its bill on Wednesday.

The bills have only received support from Republican lawmakers.

“We think it’s something that needs to have a serious look so we’ll take it to our caucus and see whether there’s consensus or not on that issue, but it is something that’s definitely a live round right now,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, told reporters on Thursday.

Eliminating tenure isn’t the only proposal Republican lawmakers have introduced this year in attempts to make Iowa’s three public universities more closely reflect their preferred beliefs.

This week, Sen. Jim Carlin, a Republican from Sioux City, introduced a bill that require the Board of Regents to “conduct a survey of all of the employees” of the three universities “to determine the political party affiliation of all such persons.”

Carlin told KCCI he is concerned that the universities employ too many Democrats.

“There’s concerns that, you know, it might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent Democrat, 10 percent Republican, maybe even north of that,” he said. “So, you know, if the taxpayers are paying that, paying the bill to fund our Regents, we want to be sure that there’s a reasonable balance in our professor composition.”

Asked what he thinks the proper ratio should be, Carlin replied “I guess I would say probably 50-50.”

Another House bill, HSB 66, would prevent any institution governed by the Board of Regents — including all three universities, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and the Iowa Agricultural and Home Economic Experimental Station at ISU — from spending any “federal funds, public or private gifts or donations, nonstate grants or receipts, and any other moneys from any nonstate public or private sources” without permission of the legislature.

HSB 66 passed a House subcommittee on Jan. 21, and is currently awaiting action by the House Education Committee. The bill is opposed by the Board of Regents, and was only supported by the Republican members of the subcommittee.

Rep. Phil Thompson, a Republican from Jefferson, said he voted in favor of the bill “to increase conversations” about how state universities spend money.

“I’m concerned that there’s no recourse for the Legislature on the backside, as opposed to just responding to what spending has happened,” he said.

Rep. Dustin Hite introduced HSB 66. The Republican from New Sharon told the Gazette he believes there is not enough accountability when it comes to how the institutions governed by the Board of Regents spend their money.

“I attended the University of Iowa, and there’s a lot of nice buildings over there that may or may not be necessary,” Hite said.