Iowa’s legislators are considering a bill to abolish tenure at our state’s three regent universities. The proposal, if passed, would seriously undermine our system of higher education.
By one definition, tenure means “the status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis, granted on the fulfillment of specified requirements.” While this sounds like a ticket to lifelong privilege, it is in fact a pact between university and faculty that has benefited Iowans for over a century.
Tenure protects freedom of speech: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, right or left. It ensures a faculty member’s right to speak up independently and free of outside pressure. It works for those of all political persuasions. In the marketplace of ideas, tenure is an essential linchpin that makes possible this freedom, even if the ideas may be unpopular in some quarters.
Unfettered research related to public health, for example, has allowed the rapid development of vital vaccines to shield us from COVID-19. Researchers skeptical of the efficacy of certain drugs undergoing testing are free to state so publicly as well, thanks to an environment which allows them to do so without reprisal. Critical research conducted at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine and College of Public Health has contributed to this life-saving knowledge.
Let’s go back to the definition of tenure. It notes that such status is granted on the fulfillment of specified requirements (emphasis mine). There already are mechanisms in place to safeguard institutions and the public from abuse of tenure. At the University of Iowa, the institution’s Operations Manual spells out procedures for review and termination of tenured faculty based upon their performance in research, instruction, and service. (https://opsmanual.uiowa.edu/human-resources/faculty-dispute-procedures/unacceptable-performance-duty-warranting-termination). As a consequence, not all faculty attain tenure. In order to do so, they must meet or exceed criteria as specified by their respective college. Without the incentive of tenure, there would be no demand for excellence.
Iowa’s public universities, long esteemed as Tier One research institutions and high-value centers of learning, have benefited the state with resources that have grown from freedom of inquiry. By failing to provide this protection, Iowa would no longer be competitive with other Tier One institutions in attracting top-notch faculty. We risk losing our best and brightest to other institutions.
Simply put, doing away with tenure would be bad for business. Let’s keep tenure working for everyone.
David McCartney is a native of Charles City and lives in Iowa City.