Don't panic: Iowa House Education chair doesn't want to abolish tenure

State Senator Brad Zaun’s bill to prohibit “the establishment or continuation of a tenure system” has worried many people who understand how badly that policy would harm Iowa’s state universities. Wisconsin Republican lawmakers spurred an exodus of highly-regarded faculty from that state’s top university, and the Wisconsin law to weaken tenure didn’t go nearly as far as Zaun’s bill would.

Fortunately, the bill seems unlikely to clear the Iowa House Education Committee–if it even gets that far.

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.

As UNI professor and faculty union president Joe Gorton told the Des Moines Register, Zaun’s bill reflects a misconception. In reality, “Tenure does not prevent faculty from being terminated for just cause.”

But facts don’t always determine what legislation advances. 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.

Confused, I sought clarification: was Sinclair saying she supports ending tenure at Iowa’s state universities, but would rather accomplish that goal through the collective bargaining bill? Or did she mean that if the collective bargaining bill makes it easier to fire public employees, she would consider that action sufficient and no longer support eliminating tenure?

I also asked the Senate Education Committee chair for comment on the two leading arguments for preserving tenure: 1) it protects academic freedom, and 2) it enables our state universities to recruit and retain highly qualified faculty.

The e-mail Sinclair sent yesterday was the most non-responsive response I’ve received in a while.

Thank you for getting in touch, Ms. Belin. I appreciate your interest. Senator Zaun’s bill on tenure at public universities was assigned to the education committee. My duty as chair is to review the bill, assign it to a subcommittee, and allow the process to work as it was designed. I have made that assignment as required by Senate rules.

For the record, I never doubted Sinclair’s commitment to following procedures on handling bills. I was looking for hints on whether she would let Senate File 41 die in subcommittee (as happens to many bills, even emerging from the majority party), or help move it to the Senate floor. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the Senate Education Committee by nine to six, but the chair has discretion on what legislation to bring up for a vote.

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. After committees approve legislation, Senate rules give Majority Leader Bill Dix the final say on what bills are debated on the floor.

It’s probably helpful that Rogers represents House district 60, covering parts of Cedar Falls and Waterloo. Although his district doesn’t include the University of Northern Iowa campus, many of his constituents work at UNI or have strong connections to the school.

Anyone concerned about protecting academic freedom and retaining good faculty at Iowa universities would do well to share their views with statehouse Republicans, especially the Senate Education Committee members. Contact information for lawmakers is here (senators) and here (representatives). Not every Iowa Senate and House member responds consistently to e-mail, but most list a home or cell phone number on their official pages. Iowans can also leave a message through the Senate switchboard at (515) 281-3371, or the House switchboard at (515) 281-3221.

Final note: Rastetter’s statement about the Board of Regents position on tenure included this line: “I look forward to meeting with Sen. Zaun to hear his thoughts.” I would love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. Zaun sucked up to Rastetter in 2012 by supporting the power-broker’s old friend Annette Sweeney in an Iowa House primary that most Republicans sensibly steered clear of. The same year, Zaun went out of his way to endorse Ben Lange, a Congressional candidate in another part of the state who had indirectly benefited from huge spending by a Rastetter-backed entity in 2010.

Zaun’s gambit was presumably aimed at securing Rastetter’s help in a future bid for higher office. But in 2014, Rastetter backed Matt Schultz, not Zaun, in the crowded GOP primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district. Zaun doesn’t need to raise a lot of money to keep getting re-elected in his state Senate district. Somehow I doubt he cares much about Rastetter’s opinion on tenure. For that matter, the Regents president doesn’t need to persuade Zaun to drop Senate File 41. Since Zaun doesn’t serve on the Senate Education Committee, this bill’s fate is now out of his hands.

  • Yes, still panic

    This is only one of the many bad ideas Republicans are proposing to harm public education. They want to hurt unions so they will mess with the collective bargaining law. That affects all the schools.

    They want to weaken public schools in general by helping church schools get their hands on tax money that used to be for the public. As they drain off the money, so they will drain off public support for the town school. When any child anywhere goes to a parochial school, it means one less taxpayer cares about the school attended by the rest of our children.

  • Other bills

    This is certainly good news. On another note what are the odds of the tuition freeze and dial back taking affect? This seems to come up every year. I read some articles from 2012 when a tuition freeze (the bad type) was brought up and a few articles have Branstad saying that it was “inappropriate” for the legislature to decide tuition matters. I wonders if Branstad feels the same way now as he did back then and I wonder what rogers take is since he has a good relationship with the new UNI president

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