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Statement on the Iowa Legislature's Threats to Academic Freedom and Tenure

The AAUP issued the following statement today.

Three proposals currently under consideration by the Iowa Legislature raise troubling concerns about academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. One bill would end tenure for professors at the state's three public universities. Tenure provides that after a suitable probationary period a faculty member may be dismissed only for just cause and only after a due process hearing before a suitable body of qualified peers. As such it has long been widely recognized as the strongest and most important protection for academic freedom. As the Iowa Board of Regents points out, tenure also allows universities “to recruit and retain the best faculty to teach, do research and provide service.”

A second proposal would mandate surveys of university employees’ political affiliations, ostensibly in search of greater ideological “balance.” The dangers posed by such a move to both personal privacy and to freedom of association and belief should be obvious. The idea that the composition of the faculty must somehow reflect the distribution of political affiliation among the citizenry fails to recognize that the whole point of academic freedom is to insulate professional judgment from political control. As the Iowa ACLU pointed out, “The government just shouldn't be in the business of asking its employees what their political beliefs are, who they voted for.”

We are encouraged by reports that these proposals may face a difficult path to passage. However, a third proposal, ostensibly intended to guarantee freedom of speech on campus, may, we understand, be more likely to gain approval, albeit perhaps in a compromise version. As the AAUP has previously noted, such “campus free speech” bills are largely solutions in search of a problem. Fear that the free exchange of ideas no longer occurs on campuses is grossly exaggerated. The AAUP has long held that freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. We believe that on a campus that is free and open, no idea should be banned or forbidden. A genuine rise in campus censorship of ideas would therefore be cause for great concern. What we are seeing, however, are most often difficult situations in a polarized political environment in which, for the most part, campuses are doing well at protecting the rights of both speakers and protesters. As the AAUP's Committee on Government Relations reported in a survey of similar proposals, “Many of the most difficult issues surrounding free speech at present are about balancing unobstructed dialogue with the need to make all constituencies on campus feel included. This can, at times, be a tricky undertaking. But punitive and simplistic measures advocated by proponents of many campus free-speech bills make finding an adequate solution more difficult, not less.”

The legislation proposed in Iowa would not only be unnecessary, but it could also impose on institutions potentially costly and overly bureaucratic burdens. The last thing our public universities need is more reports, more bureaucracy, and more administration. As we noted in response to similar bills in 2017, the AAUP opposes “any legislation that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing board in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs. The appropriate institutional regulations on campus free speech and protest, the invitation of outside speakers, and student discipline should be adopted through normal channels of institutional governance, and such regulations should be consistent with Association-approved statements on Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers, and the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.”

Higher education faces many problems, but the absence of free speech is not foremost among them. The First Amendment already protects expression at public institutions. Government gets into thorny territory when it attempts to legislate the definition and limits of permissible campus speech. Legislators would better serve the people of Iowa by focusing on solutions to bigger problems, such as restoring full funding for higher education, rather than creating new bureaucracy and new reporting requirements to regulate a largely nonexistent crisis.

—Henry Reichman, Chair, AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Publication Date: 
Thursday, March 4, 2021