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By Sarah Watson March 15, 2021

Tenure protects academic freedom, but faculty aren’t guaranteed a job

If Your Time is short

  • A GOP-backed bill that would eliminate tenure at Iowa’s three public universities passed a key legislative deadline for the first time this year.
     
  • Iowa Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, was quoted by The Gazette of Cedar Rapids as saying professors believe they are “Teflon-coated and indestructible and, therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure.”
     
  • A PolitiFact Iowa review of faculty handbooks found that state university faculty undergo annual reviews and a more extensive evaluation every five to seven years.

A bill in the Iowa Legislature, House File 49, banning tenure at Iowa’s universities passed a House committee this session, clearing a key legislative March deadline colloquially called "the funnel."

Proponents of the bill, like Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, say abolishing tenure — a contractual employment status that means faculty members have job security so controversial ideas can be exchanged to further knowledge without fear of punishment — will hold professors accountable for instances of free speech violations on campus.

One such accused violation senators have cited involved an Iowa State University English professor, Chloe Clark, who wrote in an English course syllabus that students could not "choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc)." She then apologized and updated the syllabus. ISU required each professor to include a statement of commitment to free expression at the start of the winter term.

It’s worth noting that the professor in question wasn’t tenured. Clark graduated with an MFA in creative writing from ISU in 2016. Tenure-eligible professors at ISU undergo a seven-year probationary period before gaining tenure status. In fact, Clark is an assistant teaching professor, which is a term/non-tenure-eligible appointment, ISU spokesperson Angie Hunt wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. She’s continuing to teach this semester.

Holt was quoted by The Gazette of Cedar Rapids as saying, "I wonder if the assault on free speech by some university professors is not related to the belief that they’re Teflon-coated and indestructible and, therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure."

In an email to the DI, Holt cited "the growing number of cases in which professors who know better threaten and intimidate students with differing viewpoints." He referenced the ISU professor and another instance of the dean of the College of Dentistry calling in a student who "replied all" to an email to expressed his disagreement with the college’s stance on a Trump executive order relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion training.

Holt previously told the DI"The (House) Oversight Committee has had a number of students reach out to us and describe stories of what they’ve been through and how intimidated they feel."

This isn’t a unique view of tenure, which Republicans in other states have criticized and in Iowa have been trying to eliminate since 2017. In a January interview with WHO radio, state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he didn’t think "anyone in our universities should be guaranteed a job."

But are tenured professors at Iowa’s public universities — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa — guaranteed a job? Professors with tenure have certain protections in order to preserve academic freedom but, steps exist to remove them. Plus, many faculty members do not have tenure and, thus, have fewer protections against being removed.

And, there is this: Tenure grants professors protection for free speech. At ISU, the handbook says that tenured faculty must not be disciplined "based upon any belief, expression, or conduct protected by law or by the principles of academic freedom."

But tenure’s protections are not all-encompassing.

"I want to make it really clear: Tenure is not a lifetime appointment for any given faculty member," Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the state Board of Regents told lawmakers in February. "Tenure is an employment agreement we have with them."

At each state university, tenured faculty members are reviewed annually, with a more extensive peer and department head review every five to seven years, depending on the institution. Professors on the track to become tenured undergo a probationary period that generally lasts six years with reviews by "expert peers outside the institution," according to the state Board of Regents’ 2020 tenure report, and internally at the college and university levels.

The report states: "Termination occurs when the tenured faculty member does not meet employment obligations, or in cases of program termination or financial exigency for the institution."

Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, questioned whether tenured professors are held accountable or undergo reviews on March 8 as the Senate passed a bill that would prohibit certain types of diversity, equity, and inclusion training at public education institutions, while requiring teachers and faculty members to undergo First Amendment training.

Carlin said he submitted to the regents a request for the last five years of disciplinary actions brought against tenured faculty members at each of the three public universities, but hadn’t yet received an answer as of March 8. "They wouldn’t reveal the disposition of those disciplinary actions because it would show whether or not we have an authentic review process," he said on the Senate floor March 8.

In response to a request from the DI, regents spokesperson Josh Lehman provided the DI with documents returned to Carlin in response to his questions. Lehman said regents staff sent Carlin the same information March 11, the same day Lehman sent it to the DI.

In an interview March 12, Carlin said he hadn’t yet received the materials, but after reviewing the documents over the weekend, he said the data "lacked any meaningful specificity with regard to the nature of the disciplinary actions or dispositions except for those which resulted in a discharge or resignation." He said he’d asked the secretary of the Senate to follow up with another request to the regents for more detailed information.

Carlin said he’s not opposed to tenure, nor does he have an axe to grind with the regent institutions or professors. Instead, he said he wants to ensure that the regent institutions instill a culture of allowing students to speak their minds and challenge assumptions.

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"We don’t want them to be places of indoctrination," Carlin said. "We want our students at our regents institutions to be able to think critically about how things are."

He said he’d heard of a number of students who decided against expressing their true opinions for fear of a lower grade but hadn’t experienced explicit speech suppression.

When asked whether changing tenure review policies could elicit a more fearful culture among professors, Carlin said: "I don’t think professors have anything to fear."

Each of the three public universities has had a handful of instances where tenured professors or faculty applying for tenure separated from the universities or were denied tenure status because of performance, according to the information provided.

About five tenured faculty over the past 10 years have separated from the UI as the result of the entire procedure to achieve or retain tenure status, but others have resigned at earlier points in the six-to-seven-year process to attain tenure, the documents stated.

Once tenured, faculty members at the UI are reviewed annually by their department executive officer with a more extensive peer-review every five years, according to the university’s faculty review procedures. For peer review, colleges generally require that senior faculty members evaluate classroom teaching and review written and electronic course materials. Student evaluations also factor into administrator decisions on promotion and tenure, according to the 2020 regents’ report.

The UI has 1,156 tenured faculty members and 329 tenure-track faculty members. Tenured and tenure-track faculty comprise 43 percent of total faculty members.

At ISU, faculty undergo a rigorous review every six years. Tenured faculty members can be dismissed but "only for adequate cause, elimination of academic programs, or financial exigency," according to Iowa State’s faculty handbook.

According to documents provided to the DI by Lehmanafter five promotion and tenure cycles, tenure was denied to about 7 percent of faculty who applied for tenure as an associate professor (13 out of 188 applicants), the regents’ staff wrote.

According to the documents, a similar or larger share of pre-tenure faculty leave the university before the tenure review "based on feedback or their own assessment of the likelihood of success at the promotion and tenure decision point." Faculty applying for tenure undergo a seven-year probationary period before they can be approved for tenure status.

ISU has 966 tenured faculty. That is 68.5 percent of the faculty. Another 343 are on track for tenure, the university reported.

Tenured faculty at ISU also are also reviewed every year using a Position Responsibility Statement, which outlines a faculty member’s role and goals. ISU does a more comprehensive peer evaluation either once every seven years, at the request of the faculty, or the year following two unsatisfactory reviews. In the case of an unsatisfactory annual evaluation, the handbook states, the department chair and the faculty member under review must create an action plan for improved performance.

At UNI, the 373 tenured and 110 faculty members on track for tenure represent 69 percent of the faculty. UNI has 214 faculty members who do not have tenure.

UNI’s tenured faculty are reviewed annually by their department head, relying in part on student and faculty assessments, according to the regents’ tenure report. For the first time this year, UNI implemented a review of professional performance on a six-year rotation, the report notes.

According to documents provided by Lehman, the UNI has terminated a tenured professor "for teaching performance issues" and others have resigned "due to issues of cause being determined."

Carlin also asked a regent lobbyist Keith Saunders for disciplinary actions leveled against faculty other than termination in the last five years. At the UI, six tenured faculty faced disciplinary action other than termination during that time period. Iowa State recorded 13 and UNI reported two tenured faculty facing consequences during the last five years.

Regents staff also recorded the number of faculty on track for tenure, clinical, research, or instruction, and fixed term faculty that underwent discipline in the last five years. Those tallies were nine at the UI, two at ISU, and none at UNI.

Our ruling

Tenure is a contractual agreement that protects professors’ abilities to teach, research, and challenge assumptions without fear of termination based on a belief or expression. However, tenured faculty members are reviewed for performance, and undergo a rigorous, years-long process to apply for tenure.

Faculty handbooks show that tenured faculty members can be dismissed for performance or financial reasons even if they have tenure and that they must undergo annual performance reviews. Further documents provided by the Board of Regents show that faculty have faced disciplinary action by their respective universities.

Holt wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that he was offering an opinion, based on reports he hears about the conduct some faculty have used to, in his words, silence students. He said he did not state his opinion about faculty feeling protected as fact and that his opinion cannot be proved either way.

However, the statement is based on what many who want to curb what they see as faculty abuses as being fact. Moreover, the statement reads as being fact, or at least based on fact. That is why we rate the statement that faculty members are guaranteed a job as Mostly False.

Our Sources

Email exchange with Josh Lehman, state Board of Regents spokesperson

Phone interview with state Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City

Email exchange with state Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison

House File 49, a bill that aims to eliminate tenure that passed a House Education Committee

Senate File 41, the Senate version of HF49. It hasn’t passed a committee.

Brad Zaun, Jan. 29 WHO Radio interview

Iowa state Senate floor debate, March 8, 2021

2019-2020 Faculty Tenure Report, Board of Regents

PolitiFact, by Cara Lombardo, May 16, 2016

Faculty Review, Promotion, & Tenure, University of Iowa

Faculty Handbook, Iowa State University

"College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen to step down early after free speech controversy", Caleb McCullough, The Daily Iowan, Feb. 25, 2021

"Iowa universities apologize for ‘egregious’ free speech errors", Vanessa Miller, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Feb. 2, 2021

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Tenure protects academic freedom, but faculty aren’t guaranteed a job

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