BY HANK REICHMAN
This month saw what the AAUP quickly labeled “A Concerted Attack on Academic Freedom” in Iowa and Missouri, as well as a boneheaded bill introduced in Arizona that would have banned discussions of “social justice” at the state’s public colleges and universities. But after faculty members and higher ed leaders pushed back, it seems that at least two of these challenges have been defeated, at least for now, with the Missouri proposal’s fate still unclear.
In Iowa, State Senator Brad Zaun’s bill to prohibit “the establishment or continuation of a tenure system” now seems unlikely to clear the Iowa House Education Committee–if it even gets that far. Here’s how Bleeding Heartland, a terrific blog about Iowa politics, described what happened:
Long a prolific bill-filer, Zaun is a member of the Iowa Senate majority caucus for the first time. (The chamber was split 25-25 during his first two years at the statehouse, and Democrats were in control for ten years after that.) Consequently, proposals from Zaun that would have been dead on arrival in the past can no longer be ignored. So it was with Senate File 41, which would ban tenure and make it easier to fire faculty at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. . . .
Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Sinclair did not rule out backing the tenure ban. She told reporters for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Des Moines Register that she was in “a wait-and-see pattern,” hoping to “make sure that anything we’re doing doesn’t conflict” with planned Republican changes to collective bargaining rights for public employees. . . .
I turned to GOP State Representative Walt Rogers, the new leader of the House Education Committee. Speaking by phone yesterday, Rogers indicated he doesn’t support Zaun’s proposal: “My feeling is this: I certainly understand why some would have problems with tenure, but I guess I believe that if schools, their presidents, their boards, want to use tenure as a tool, right or wrong, I think it’s their choice to do that.” (Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter affirmed in a statement that the board “understands the role of tenure.” University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld “passionately” supports the tenure system, he recently told faculty.)
Asked whether he could envision Senate File 41 advancing out of his committee, Rogers replied, “I don’t expect it to make it through the full process of getting to my committee.” He is not aware of any House Republican planning to introduce a similar bill.
Republicans now hold 29 of the 50 Iowa Senate seats. I infer that Rogers has discussed the issue with well-placed GOP colleagues and has concluded that Zaun’s bill will either stay bottled up in the Education Committee or never receive a vote in the full Senate.
In his message Harreld — whose 2015 hiring led to the imposition of sanction by the AAUP for violations of governance standards — wrote: “We at the University of Iowa, and I personally as the president of the UI, fully and passionately support the tenure system and the principles of academic freedom that underlie tenure, both at our institution and in higher education in general.” Harreld encouraged faculty to voice support of the tenure system and its principles in hopes of promoting a better understanding of their “essential value to our students and to our society.”
“Academic freedom and tenure really are at the core of who we are, what we are about, what we do, and what our mission in service to society is,” Harreld wrote. “My job as president is to make sure that this character is understood, supported, and enhanced at our institution and among the public that supports us.”
Some faculty observers noted, however, that Harreld’s message only followed word that the bill was heading nowhere.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican Rep. Paul Boyer, chair of the House Education Committee, said he would not hear Rep. Bob Thorpe’s bill to ban K-12 schools and universities from teaching “social justice,” effectively killing the legislation for the year. Boyer said the bill simply didn’t have the votes to pass his committee.
Thorpe’s HB2120 would have banned classes that promote “resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people.” The legislation was modeled after a bill lawmakers approved in 2010 that banned K-12 schools from offering courses that advocate “the overthrow of the United State government” or promote “resentment towards a race or class of people.” That bill was aimed at Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies class. Thorpe’s HB2120 would have taken the same ban, beefed it up, and applied it to university courses as well. It would also have given the attorney general the unilateral power to withhold up to 10 percent of state aid if he or she determines a college or university is in violation.
No one should get cocky, but these two swift apparent victories, even if temporary, suggest that legislative assaults on tenure and academic freedom may face rougher going than those pushing them expect. And, if so, it’s because faculty members and our supporters mobilized quickly, spoke, up and pressured university leaders to take a strong stand. It’s a lesson for the future.