I Can't Believe It's Not Tenure

Tenure is again at risk in Iowa. Some scholars say legislators should study their own history, since a case during World War II is to many experts a classic example of why protecting academic freedom matters.

February 7, 2019
 
At left, Iowa's Capitol. At right, Theodore Schultz. In center, margarine.

It's winter, which means that tenure is under attack in Iowa, where academic freedom and tenure were once central to a fight over controversial research on margarine. (Yes, really. More on that later.)

The Republican state senator behind the consistent -- and thus far unsuccessful -- attempts to end tenure in Iowa is Brad Zaun.

Zaun didn’t respond to a request for comment about the new iteration of his proposal. But, similar to bills introduced in legislative sessions past, Zaun’s 2019 antitenure bill seeks to prohibit any tenure system for any public college or university employee. Acceptable grounds for termination would include, but not be limited to, just cause, program discontinuance and financial exigency. And each institution governed by the Board of Regents of the State of Iowa “shall adopt a written statement enumerating employment agreements, annual performance evaluations of all faculty members, minimum standards of good practice,” faculty discipline and more.

Unlike in past years, Zaun's proposal passed the State Senate's education committee in a 2-to-1 vote.

College deans, under the authority of the state board and their presidents, would “employ faculty as necessary to carry out the academic duties and responsibilities of the college,” the bill says.

Zaun has spoken previously about why he wants to end tenure, saying that he supports institutional flexibility, not a “guaranteed” job for life for professors. He’s also expressed concern about undergraduates being taught by teaching assistants.

Faculty advocates in Iowa are quick to point out that tenure doesn’t mean a job for life, and that having teaching assistants has little to nothing to do with tenure.

Katherine Tachau, professor of history at the University of Iowa and president of its campus advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that Zaun “might find it reassuring” to hear that “tenure is not a gift, but a contractual relationship that requires many years -- usually six to 10 years -- for faculty to earn.” And those who are willing and able to run the tenure gantlet “tend to be strongly motivated internally to continue doing the high-quality work through which they earned tenure,” she said.

Even so, tenured faculty members at each of the state’s three public institutions overseen by the board are reviewed annually already, and more extensively every five years, Tachau said. Faculty members can lose tenure or be fired for failing to do their jobs, with due notice and a fair process.

Most significant to the debate, though, is that the majority of Iowa’s faculty members have contingent positions and aren’t eligible for tenure anyway, she added.

As for teaching assistants, Tachau said that they have no relation to tenure, except that they represent -- necessarily -- the faculty of the future.

“We tenured faculty teach students at every level, freshmen through Ph.D. students, and do so willingly,” Tachau said. But in addition to their professors, undergraduates benefit from TAs who have relevant teaching or research experiences before enrolling in their graduate degree programs, she added in an email.

Tachau’s colleague at Iowa, Loren Glass, professor of English, said he thought the bill wouldn’t go anywhere. That’s probably likely, given that previous bills failed, even in a newly Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature last year. Still, Republicans maintained majorities in both chambers in 2018, and tenure is undoubtedly part of the resurgent culture wars.

Like Tachau, Glass said he thinks the antitenure bill based on a “misunderstanding of what tenure is and does.” He cited the AAUP’s official definition, which says, in part, that a tenured appointment “is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” AAUP says that tenure exists primarily to “safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education.”

When professors can lose their positions “because of their speech or publications research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge,” AAUP says.

Some tenure skeptics believe that academic freedom is more about protecting professors' political rants or underperformance than protecting research to advance the public good. But examples of how academic freedom has affected the latter abound -- including a slippery World War II-era case in … Iowa.

The Margarine-Butter Wars

By 1943, Iowa State College-- now Iowa State University -- had attracted a bevy of economists dedicated to researching hard subjects and then translating what they'd learned into policy suggestions. O. H. Brownlee, a graduate student at the college, suggested in one of his policy pamphlets that Americans should eat more margarine as part of the war effort, in light of a dairy shortage among service personnel. In a pre-I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter moment, he also asserted that margarine was comparable to butter in taste and nutrition.

Iowa’s dairy industrial complex, which lobbied against margarine right down to its color, challenged the recommendation and urged Iowa State to get rid of the some of the people involved. The butter lobby also waged its war against margarine, Iowa State, and Brownlee through the press, calling the graduate student “unstable” and insulting economists in general as less-than-real scientists.

Iowa State’s president convened committees to review Brownlee’s work. Eventually bowing to public pressure, the president asked Brownlee to rewrite his report and even sought to reorganize the college's press. The department chair, Theodore Schultz, left Iowa for the University of Chicago in protest, but wrote a very public, very scathing resignation letter on his way out. Some 16 of 26 economists left Iowa by 1945.

Schultz and another former Iowa economist, George Stigler, were later awarded a Nobel Prize (not for margarine).

David Seim, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, wrote about the margarine-butter wars for the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Annals of Iowa in 2008. He said this week that during the Great Depression, Iowa State invested in attracting agricultural economists who “were at the cusp of lifting Iowa State’s reputation to the very top.”

They “encouraged courageous objectivity, that they need not fear whatever research conclusions they might find,” Seim said, calling that kind of fearlessness “rare.” Those economists saw tenure as an “efficiency mechanism” that would promote more ideas from which to choose -- not a reason to slack off.

Seim said that so many years later, “We ought to do better work reminding as many people as we can of some lessons from this episode.” Despite assertions otherwise, the institution of tenure “actually enables certain efficiencies that are less likely to happen without tenure,” he said -- namely “reasonable and wise risk-taking” and the “leadership and service that society needs.”

It seems Iowa’s board agrees. It opposed Zaun’s 2017 bill and opposes this one, too, said spokesperson Josh Lehman.

“Tenure allows our institutions to recruit and retain the best faculty to teach, do research and provide service to advance the institutional missions of our public universities,” he wrote in an email.

Barbara A. Cutter, associate professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa and the campus’s faculty chair, said she hoped Zaun’s bill would fail, but that threats to tenure should be taken “very seriously.”

Without the academic freedom that tenure ensures, “professors can’t do their jobs properly,” she said. “Professors have an obligation to teach and conduct research honestly, competently and ethically. They aren’t supposed to be swayed by public opinion -- just the evidence they study.”

The topics they study, such as race relations and climate change, can be controversial, Cutter said. And as scholars talk and write about those things within the boundaries of their fields, “tenure protects them for being fired for saying or writing things others disagree with.”

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