Iowa's state universities are dying, slowly

Alex Travesset dispels some misconceptions that threaten to turn Iowa’s state universities into “giant teaching community colleges with no research.” -promoted by Laura Belin

It was January of 1997 when I got an offer for a three-year research position at Syracuse University in New York. I defended my PhD that summer and arrived at Syracuse in early September. I had never been in the U.S. before, but I quickly found it a fantastic environment to work, based on merit and so different with the bureaucracy and cronyism that I had experienced in European universities.

Fast forward to winter 2002. During another two-year position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, preceded by a short-term but productive visiting position at Harvard University, I was interviewing for faculty jobs. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst I had an exchange I will never forget. Noticing that the institution was in apparent crisis at the time, I very politely inquired about it to the chair of the Department of Physics. He told me very honestly that Massachusetts had too many top private universities, and it was not like the Midwest, where legislators are alumni and have developed a pride and special bond toward their public universities.

Fittingly, my last interview was at Iowa State. I fell in love right away; it was quite similar to the University of Illinois, had a thriving department, but in addition, a National Lab, the Ames lab, just across the physics building. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I got an offer, which I accepted without delay. In August 2002, I moved to Ames and started a tenure track position as assistant professor. As is the norm, I was given generous funds to get my research group started. With the typical highs and lows, I got tenure and was promoted to associate professor in 2008. I became full professor in 2013.

HOW THE TENURE TRACK WORKS

I normally teach one course per semester, which comes down to three classroom hours per week. Some are surprised to learn how little time I spend in the classroom, and cannot help but ask what do I do with so much free time. As you may have guessed, I do not have much free time. Last week I completed an internal survey sponsored by the provost and logged a 63-hour work week.

What do I do during the 60 hours that I am not in the classroom? I prepare my lectures, answer questions, and help students with issues related to my course. I take care of grading, serve on many committees, mentor graduate and undergraduate students in research, perform research, and collaborate with other scientists while writing scientific papers. I also serve as editor of a scientific journal.

Last, but not least: fundraising through external grants takes no small part of my time. This is a critical activity: grants fund all research, pays the tuition and the graduate student work, stipends for undergraduates and my summer salary, as the university only pays for the two semesters I teach.

There is nothing special about my path or my working schedule. The overwhelming majority of professors in any research university across the country, at least in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), will tell an almost identical story. What is the defining event in this very typical story? Definitely, the tenure track.

All recent PhDs who aspire to become professors have tenure track as their objective. And this system has worked extremely well: it provides the stability to develop long-term research projects, building infrastructure for the benefit of the students, the university, and ultimately, the community and the state.

U.S. higher education is the envy of the world, topping all rankings and the most prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, while educating generations of innovators who have transformed the world. Tenure track is the bedrock of the entire U.S. university system, and by now, all developed countries have embraced it, with some variations.

HOW PENDING BILLS THREATEN IOWA’S UNIVERSITIES

With this preamble, it is not difficult to predict what will happen should Senate File 41 or House File 496 move forward and eliminate tenure from Iowa’s public universities. (Editor’s note: The House bill cleared the first “funnel” deadline and is eligible for debate in the lower chamber.) Whoever we can recruit either will be taking the position as a temporary fix until a tenure track comes along somewhere else, or is someone who has no chance of a tenure track position anywhere.

Either way, it will be impossible to develop competitive and long-term research groups. The ability to attract external funds and to sustain PhD programs will quickly crumble, and most of the accomplished tenured faculty in our institutions will leave. As Matt Chapman reported in 2019, when another tenure ban was being considered, “after similar legislation passed in 1943, three educators left the state and received a Nobel prize while tenured at other universities.”

Without tenure, our public universities will become giant teaching community colleges with no research. Upper-level courses will be taught by mostly unqualified instructors.

We will still be able to provide degrees and have fancy commencement ceremonies (if that is what you care about), but conferring degrees with very diminished value in the job market. The STEM departments as we know them will disappear. In practice, Iowa will not keep a single research university, as none of its private colleges can take up that role. The same fate will follow with the prestigious University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Our state will become a technological desert, where only companies requiring unskilled labor will have an incentive to come.

Is it conceivable to have a university system without tenure? In principle, everything is conceivable, but realistically, it is not. This system has been in place for centuries now. Everything revolves around tenure. Many funding opportunities are only available for tenure (track) positions. Changing it would require a revamping of epic proportions for the entire nation.

It mystifies me that some politicians seem unaware of how much of a big deal this is. They have not shown the minimum curiosity or interest in educating themselves on how a competitive university operates. Even if the bill does not become law, the current discussion is damaging our reputation, by making it harder to recruit top faculty and administrators, and exposing a view to the world that Iowa is run by clueless and ignorant legislators, as Bruce Lear has pointed out.

Herb Strentz defends tenure in terms of academic freedom from unduly influence and provides excellent concrete examples on why this is necessary. I will add to it that all tenured professors sign a Personal Responsibility Statement, which is updated every few years and states what the position entails. Failure to live up to these obligations may lead (and has led) to job termination. Contrary to what many people are led to believe, tenure does not protect a professor against failure to do the job.

The general public also needs to know that research funding does not come from student fees, the legislature, or the governor. It is all external, mostly federal or through private foundations or companies. If our professors do not reap these grants, others elsewhere will. The numbers alone speak by themselves: The faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at ISU bring $11.6 million per year in external grants, while the budget for the entire department is $6.6 million.

Some legislators may think that certain kinds of academic research are obscure and disconnected from real life. That is perfectly fine, but they must understand that the funding has been obtained in extremely competitive solicitations against other top U.S. universities, after which, an entity has decided that this is the optimal way to spend their money. This is why House Study Bill 66, a bill that aims to micromanage and sanction what research is acceptable, is completely out of place. Do our bureaucrats at the General Assembly know better than the institutions that risk their money? (Editor’s note: This bill is dead for the 2021 session but could be revived next year.)

OTHER MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT UNIVERSITY LIFE

I hope I already made my case. But, since we are at it, maybe I should tackle other ideas promoted by some influential Republicans: that universities are run by out of touch liberals who use their position of power to indoctrinate young, impressionable students.

I teach science, based on research validated by rigorous experiments. Newton’s second law is F= ma, regardless of your political affiliations. My opinions about “divisive issues”, thank God, are completely off topic and have no place in the syllabus. In almost twenty years at ISU, I cannot recall a single case where I have been involved in discussions of “divisive issues” in the classroom.  I am willing to bet some decent money that the vast majority of students, at least in STEM, graduate without attending a single lecture where “divisive” or political issues are ever raised.

Many Republicans demand that universities have a balanced representation between liberals and conservatives. First of all, in a faculty search, and I have seen a ton of them, the search committee and the entire college works very hard to recruit the best possible candidate. Needless to say, but nobody cares about his political ideology, and even if we did care, there is no way to know or even to ask. The idea that we would hurt ourselves by rejecting a superb candidate based on considerations beyond her teaching and research is not only untethered to reality, but an insult to our ethics and professionalism.

I can never be completely sure, as there are only a handful of colleagues with whom I have conversations on political issues, but I would agree with our Republican legislators that a majority of faculty lean Democratic. If this perception is true, it should be hardly surprising: Republican leaders love to attack college professors and stereotyping us in ways that are false or wildly exaggerated, as I explain above, or that apply to unrepresentative isolated cases. They also show a bewildering contempt for scientific facts, whether it is mask wearing, global warming or even the theory of evolution, not to mention promoting debunked miraculous cures like hydroxychloroquine.

Add to that other issues that fall outside academics but repel many of us: the veiled (or not so veiled) racism, the relentless Islamophobia, the complacency with some forms of anti-Semitism, the cruelty against the LGBTQ community, or the penchant for all sorts of conspiracy theories.

I have voted Democratic in all elections after I became a U.S. citizen over four years ago. Does this mean that I am a diehard liberal snob? Well… One of the first books I read after I arrived to the U.S. was the biography of Ronald Reagan. His description of how he turned from Democrat to Republican after witnessing the bureaucracies created during the Great Depression had a huge impression on me, because it showed a striking resemblance to my experience back in Europe. President Reagan’s last speech before leaving office, explaining how living in France does not make you French, but you can come from any corner and become an American, had also a deep powerful impact.

There are many aspects of conservatism I find attractive: the healthy skepticism against utopias and revolutions, the power of the free market, individual freedom, personal accountability, fiscal discipline or fighting government overreach. Coming from a Catholic family, my views on abortion are not in line with most mainstream Democrats. Based on what I believe, I could be seduced to vote for conservative candidates, but in the current environment it is not going to happen.

Why did I describe my positions on these “divisive issues,” if they are irrelevant to my job, as I wrote above? Placing people along team liberal and conservative may be great to create divisions, and in this way, win elections. But in real life, that caricature obliterates all the wonderful nuances and contradictions that each and every one of us have as individuals. More importantly, it exemplifies how misguided Senate File 292 is, a bill that aims to survey faculty political views in our public universities. First, those views do not reflect an intrinsic bias, but a response to the policies set by Republican legislators themselves and their party. Second, faculty’s views have a negligible influence in the courses that are taught. Finally, that project looks awfully similar to Soviet practices, where commissars would be embedded in universities and research centers to intimidate and avert criticism to the ruling Communist Party. (Editor’s note: Senate File 292 didn’t make it through the first “funnel” and is not eligible for debate this year.)

STARVED FOR FUNDING

While this article was about the bills recently introduced by Republican lawmakers, I cannot help pointing out that Iowa’s public universities have been in trouble for quite some time. There is this old joke where a donkey is withdrawn a little bit of food every day. One day the donkey dies and the owner is in disbelief. “I cannot believe how unlucky I am. I trained the donkey to work without food, and now he dies!”

It seems clear, at least to me, that Iowa lawmakers see the university role as conferring degrees at a relative low cost and providing sports entertainment. Their strategy, going back more than a decade now, has been to withdraw funds (while the Board of Regents prevent highly unpopular tuition increases) and expect business as usual. Even this year, while Governor Kim Reynolds brags about a $300 million surplus (and $700 million in rainy day funds), we continue with the long-standing tradition of budget cuts.

Inevitably, there are consequences: Iowa universities have been sliding down in all relevant rankings. To counter, our administrators have been fighting to prevent us from being relegated out of the big leagues. The solution, so far, has not been particularly original: ask everybody to do a lot more with a lot less. After twelve years, however, I feel we are reaching the breaking point.

For several years in a row, at the end of the year, a highly accomplished full professor quits our department and takes the grant money elsewhere. We have been forced to cut the number of teaching assistant lines to unprecedented low numbers, with the consequence that we are extraordinarily limited in the number of incoming graduate students we can accept. This, in turn, places a strong challenge in our ability to fulfill the commitments on the grants we secured. In the meantime, rich private and some public universities (in both blue and red states) have widened their lead. Ironically, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has been reasonably well-funded over the last decade and has surpassed many Midwestern universities, including ours.

If this were a Hallmark movie, our legislators would, by chance, read this article. That would prompt them to visit our campuses and meet regular professors. They would learn from other states (both red and blue) and realize that a top research university is an engine of innovation, a magnet for creating and attracting next generation businesses, an irreplaceable reservoir of expertise for the State and that in today’s information age, higher education holds the key for the economy of the future. Then, we would all work together to bring back our Universities at least to where they were two decades ago. We would devise an ambitious, yet realistic and politically neutral with overwhelming bipartisan support, long-range plan defining the universities we need and incorporating the appropriate funding mechanisms, for the benefit of all Iowans.

The movie would end in a not so distant future, alternating the sad images of where the current standby would have taken us (in black and white) with those summarizing the accomplishments of our alumni and faculty after implementing the historic long-range plan (in color). Unfortunately, our current environment looks nothing like the Midwest nice depicted in Hallmark movies.

I will end where I started: the premonitory conversation I had with the chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Massachusetts, almost twenty years ago. It is still true that our most important political leaders are graduates or have been in the faculty of our public Universities: our governor and Senator Joni Ernst are graduates of ISU. Senator Chuck Grassley is a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. Three of our four U.S. House members have connections to our state universities: Representative Cindy Axne is a graduate of the University of Iowa, Representative Randy Feenstra went to ISU, and Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks was a University of Iowa faculty member.

I keep asking myself: What happened to the pride and special bond with our public universities?

Alex Travesset (on Twitter @Trvsst_in_Ames) is a professor in the department of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State University. This article expresses his personal opinions and do not, in any way, represent the views of Iowa State, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, or any other person or institution.

Top image: Beardshear Hall on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. Photo by Ken Wolter, available via Shutterstock.

  • About Community Colleges

    I have received a couple of tweets complaining that I demean Community Colleges. I apologize if it looks that way, but it is not, at all, my intention. Community Colleges are a fundamental part of the Higher Education puzzle and we absolutely need them. But we also absolutely need competitive Research universities.

    Also, about the line “upper level courses will need to be taught but mostly unqualified instructors”. I would like to say that this is my experience. Instructors that are not actively involved in research, with exceptions of course, do not have the kind of knowledge necessary to provide high quality upper level courses, say at the 400, 500 or 600 level.

    • Could have been better said.

      You have an excellent case for supporting tenure, research and academic freedom in your otherwise well written article without those two sentences. Neither is helpful to your cause and, in fact, demeans it. It would be true to say that without tenure and without research the universities become only teaching colleges. It would also be true to say that teaching higher level courses effectively requires a knowledge of research and the teaching of research could not be effectively done unless the faculty member had research experience and research activity underway. Your choice of words in the article in those two sentences could have been better.

  • If Republican legislators...

    …don’t intend to send one of these tenure bills to the governor, and are instead playing some odd game of brinksmanship to try to teach Regents institutions a lesson, they should be aware that across the nation, academics can read. The best professors and future professors have options. Why, given what is happening in Iowa, should they want to come here? And, as pointed out in this good essay, why should the best academics who are already in Iowa want to stay?

    As for some Iowa business people who voted and donated to strengthen the Republican trifecta, and who are now part of lobbying efforts to stop Republican bills that are bad for Iowa’s business climate and bad for Iowa’s future, what did they expect?

  • Republicans think colleges are bad for America

    Thanks for this essay– a nice perspective from a non-native. I did not know the alma mater of the members of Congress. But what really matters is the members of the state legislature. I’d like to know how many of them went to public schools at any level. How many send their kids to public schools, too?

  • Republican legislators have graduated...

    …from the University of A.L.E.C. (that’s the American Legislative Exchange Council for you newcomers)

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