The Erosion of Support for Education and Tenure in Iowa

Efforts to sow suspicion of educators are undermining the common good.
By Lois K. Cox and Katherine H. Tachau

Eroded agricultural field

The Iowa legislature convenes only at the beginning of the year. In several recent years, the spring semester has brought apprehension and anxiety to faculty members at Iowa’s three state universities when Republican legislators have repeatedly introduced (but failed to pass) bills abolishing tenure at public universities. The assault on tenure has been only the most visible aspect of a profound devaluing of public higher education in Iowa. It was not always thus. For a long time, beginning with the founding of the state and ending only at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Iowa was remarkable for its support of public higher education. Only fifty-nine days after Iowa became a state, the State University of Iowa was established by the second official act of its legislature. Referred to in the state constitution, the new university began to offer instruction in 1855. It was soon followed in 1858 by the founding of the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm—now Iowa State University of Science and Technology—the nation’s first land-grant institution officially approved by a state legislature.

Public support for education in general, and tax-funded higher education in particular, remained steady in Iowa throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries during both Democratic and Republican administrations. In living memory, state universities prospered during the administrations of Democratic governor Harold Hughes and Republican governor Robert Ray. Iowans were justly proud of the education they offered their children and young adults. As recently as 2004, Iowa chose to place a Grant Wood drawing of a schoolhouse on the Iowa quarter. Recent Republican efforts to devalue public higher education have thus come as a significant break with prior Iowa history. Many people would say that even Democratic support has been lukewarm.

Political Attacks

Beginning in fiscal year 2009, the Iowa legislature has slashed its allocations to the general education funds of the state’s three public universities, all of which are governed by a single board of regents. Professors have been the targets of political demagoguery. And, of course, there have been the persistent efforts to abolish tenure, most recently in 2021.

Recent legislative sessions have included a concentrated effort to tighten control of the classroom. In 2021, Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” in public institutions, including K–12 schools and public universities. The language of the bill closely resembles an executive order issued by former president Donald Trump that was enjoined nationwide and revoked by President Joe Biden soon after his inauguration.

Also in 2021, the Republican-controlled legislature took up the topic of free speech on campus in a way that amply demonstrates Iowa’s participation in the widespread capture of that issue by the Right. The bill that ultimately became law requires the board of regents to develop materials on free speech, to establish a complaint procedure for persons who feel aggrieved by suppression of their speech, and to require disciplinary measures for faculty members who are found to have infringed students’ free-speech rights. The board responded by requiring the three state universities to include prescribed language in syllabi, to provide free-speech “training,” and to discipline violators through measures up to and including discharge. Perhaps most telling, the board directed that the institutions refrain from adopting positions on free-speech issues unless and until there has been consultation with the board. As of now, Iowa professors are expected to avoid divisive concepts while protecting free speech—a task to stymie even the most dedicated trader in the marketplace of ideas.

In spring 2022, the Republican majority in the legislature took a break from pummeling the professoriate and instead directed its attacks at K–12 educators. Joining the national trend seeking to promote what were represented as parents’ rights and increased curricular “transparency,” some legislators accused teachers and librarians of having a “sinister agenda” and proposed criminal penalties for including “obscene” topics and materials in classrooms and school libraries. These were bad times, to be sure, for all those who treasure academic and intellectual freedom. Nonetheless, at least for the 2022 legislative session, the subject of tenure seemed to be off the table.

However, the work of defunding and micromanaging the state universities continued during the legislative session of 2022 in ways that clearly communicate disrespect for the academic mission. The same contempt for lifelong scholarship that led legislators to consider banning tenure remained apparent in budgetary deliberations. The pride in high-quality public education that inspired Iowa to put a schoolhouse on the Iowa quarter was nowhere to be seen in 2022.

The Budgetary Squeeze on Tenure

In actual dollars, the state’s budget for Iowa’s public universities has been declining for more than a dozen years. Each year since 2009, the legislature has allocated to the board for the general education fund millions of dollars fewer than it did in 2005. In most years, the legislative appropriation to the board has been less than it was the year before. The board finally received a 1.1 percent increase in 2022. But whether this is a small blip on a continuing downward curve or the start of a turn in the right direction is unclear. The board has raised tuition sharply to replace lost state funding. For example, at the University of Iowa, tuition’s contribution to the general education fund has risen from 44 percent in 2005 to the present 63 percent.

As with many other research institutions across the country, the decline in state appropriations is felt most dramatically in the composition of the faculty. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members are an increasingly small percentage of the faculty as a whole. At the University of Iowa, the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty to non-tenure-track faculty has, roughly speaking, paralleled the ratio of state appropriations to tuition revenue since 2005. Just as the state appropriation has dropped from 47.1 to 29.2 percent of the general education fund during that time, so has the percentage of the total faculty on tenured and tenure-track appointments dropped from 64.8 to 44.1 percent. During the same period in which the size of the entire faculty has increased by almost 40 percent, the percentage of non-tenure-track faculty has increased from 35.2 to 55.9 percent.

The Results for Faculty

Admittedly, tenured positions are costly. Because the job descriptions of tenure-line faculty at research-intensive universities customarily ensure that 40 percent of their working time will be spent pursuing scholarship, they teach fewer classes than their nontenure-track colleagues. Increasingly, Iowans, through their legislators, seem unwilling to invest in research and scholarship, no matter how many studies reveal the long-term benefits to the state of producing such new knowledge.

Replacements (if any) for tenured or tenure-track faculty members who retire or resign, as well as faculty hired on newly created lines, are now very often classified as lecturers or “instructional faculty.” These instructional faculty are likely to be no less qualified than their tenured or tenure-track colleagues, but their jobs are fundamentally different. They teach many more classes, are paid much less, and have little to no security of employment. Any scholarly work they find time to do may not be taken into account when their job performance or eligibility for continued employment is assessed.

The ostensible reason for hiring such a second-class category of faculty—the need for “flexibility”—has garnered widespread approval among university administrators, bureaucrats, and state politicians, as the administrators and the board of regents experience the intoxicating freedom of “flexibility” on a massive scale. Given the budgetary cuts they must accommodate, it is easy to see why a dean or provost would be reluctant to appoint tenured or tenure-track professors. These days, academic values and respect for the value of a lifetime of scholarship seem like unaffordable luxuries. At present, an administrator who authorizes the appointment of a professor on the tenure track is making a conscious decision to prioritize the long-range research productivity of her institution over the nearer-term allure of hiring an instructional faculty member who would teach more courses. Fortunately, some do choose to support scholarship if they are permitted to do so. But the Iowa legislature’s decision to reduce the funding of the public universities makes that choice significantly more difficult because administrators are torn between immediate, legitimate student demands for a rich array of course offerings, on the one hand, and long-term concern for the institutions’ research portfolio and the value of the degrees the institutions confer, on the other.

We see the predictable effects of reducing the funding of Iowa’s universities in Iowa State University’s April 2022 announcement that it had elected to withdraw from the research-focused Association of American Universities (AAU). Though there has been little public discussion of a connection between legislators’ reluctance to support the commitment to scholarship that tenure represents and a public university’s ability to maintain the research focus that AAU membership assumes, the relationship between the two is obvious.

Many Iowa legislators seem to believe that their constituents share with them a belief that tenure shields laziness, that “elite” professors should be teaching more classes and doing less research, and that money spent supporting faculty research doesn’t yield tangible benefits. At the moment, there is no indication that state leaders believe the investment is repaid by having Iowa students taught by highly credentialled professors who are actively engaged in primary research. Nor do legislators seem to perceive the value—economic and otherwise—to Iowa’s communities of attracting and retaining first-rate scholars, teachers, and artists who would not come here without the job security that tenure provides. It is certain that those legislators fail to appreciate the overriding advantage of tenure, one that prompted the formation of the AAUP more than a century ago: the ability of faculty members to pursue their research and teaching free from commercial or political pressures.

Suspicion of Educators

Legislative attempts to abolish tenure, consistent underfunding of state universities and K–12 schools, attempts to control curricula masquerading as rejection of “divisive concepts,” and insistence on “transparency,” taken together, signal Iowa’s rejection of education as a public good. Why does a state that once prized higher education so highly now treat it with such contempt? Put another way, why does a state that prides itself on its highly skilled, hardworking people, a state where the dominant industry, agriculture, has everything to gain from new knowledge and technological advance, now place so little value on high-quality higher education? Why is so much of this hostility toward education manifested as suspicion of educators, especially professors? Is it fear that anyone who can’t be seen to be working long hours out of doors, on the shop floor, or behind a counter isn’t, in fact, working much at all?

An Iowa legislator, highly supportive of higher education, once told a professor that one of the most common complaints he received from constituents was that they had observed a professor neighbor mowing the lawn on a weekday afternoon. Why should such a sight prompt a call to a legislator, presumably to complain (at least implicitly) about state support of institutions of higher learning? Are the benefits of supporting such institutions so invisible that their value can be called into question by the sight of a neighbor doing yard work? For surely those benefits are substantial, including valuable, marketable undergraduate and graduate degrees for state residents at a reasonable price; well-trained professionals in the health sciences, law, education, and business working throughout the state; and the fruits of the research enterprise improving health care, agribusiness, and other industries. It is discouraging to ask these questions, and the answers are elusive. Perhaps our collective experience of remote work during the pandemic, when many employers learned that employees working outside their immediate view could be diligent and productive, will help alleviate that suspicion.

In Iowa, it was encouraging to see the response to the “sinister agenda” accusation leveled at teachers and school librarians in spring 2022. The charges were not well received, and the Right’s scare tactics in citing books in school libraries with LGBTQ+ characters were not successful. The most objectionable proposals on the so-called parents’ rights agenda met the same fate as the bills proposing the abolition of tenure and were not enacted into law.

The results of the 2022 midterm elections in Iowa counter that optimism, however. The “red tide” that failed to materialize elsewhere covered Iowa from border to border, returning Governor Reynolds to office with a large majority and increasing Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The outlook for public education is accordingly ominous. The governor’s cherished project, characterized as “school choice,” has the potential to shift millions of dollars in public funding from public to private K–12 schools. In early 2022, legislators refused to support the governor on that issue, but it remains to be seen whether they will resist her again. Similarly, there seems little reason to be optimistic about the immediate future of public higher education.

There is no denying that the Far Right’s active rejection of science and verifiable knowledge (think antivaccination rhetoric and denial of the 2020 election results) feeds directly into what is now a decades-long trend of under-supporting higher education in Iowa. Can this culture shift be reversed? And can that happen in time for the current generation of working academics to make the important contributions they are capable of making?

Lois K. Cox is clinical professor of law emerita and Katherine H. Tachau is professor of history emerita, both at the University of Iowa.