Open Season on the Faculty

It's a jungle out there for faculty members this legislative session, with state bills banning certain courses and content and, in Iowa, seeking to survey faculty members on their political beliefs.

February 11, 2021
 
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Proposed legislation in Iowa would require the state’s Board of Regents to survey all employees of the three universities it oversees as to their political party affiliations, disaggregating the data by job classification but not by individual. The regents would deliver the information to state lawmakers by the end of the calendar year.

The bill doesn’t provide an explanation, and Jim Carlin, the Republican state senator who introduced it, didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the meaning is clear: by disaggregating employee groups, Iowa’s General Assembly could measure the political beliefs of the faculty.

In Iowa and elsewhere in recent years, Republican state lawmakers have lamented what they describe as academe’s lack of intellectual or ideological diversity.

In 2017, for instance, another Iowa Republican state legislator proposed an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have prevented regents institutions from hiring professors who caused the “percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by 10 percent” the share of the faculty belonging to the other dominant party. Under that bill, Iowa’s commissioner of elections was to provide voter registration data to colleges and universities once a year. Carlin’s new bill represents a new way of getting at that party affiliation data.

A proposal similar to Carlin’s stoked faculty ire before it failed in Florida in 2019. The language of that Florida bill was more direct than the Iowa version: it would have required the Board of Governors for Florida’s state university system to measure the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the university community feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” Students were subject to the assessment as well.

At the time, faculty members across Florida wondered what would happen if they refused to answer questions about their political beliefs. Would they be punished, for instance? Democratic lawmakers objected to the bill on the grounds that it seemed to be targeting one set of political beliefs, as it is well documented that professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Research also suggests that professors don't indoctrinate their students like many politicians say they do.

Samuel Abrams, a political scientist and one of relatively few conservatives on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, opposed the Florida bill in 2019 on the grounds that it was a “political litmus test” and therefore fundamentally anti-American. He said Wednesday that he opposed the Iowa bill for the same reasons.

Moreover, asking someone whether they’re a Democrat or Republican doesn’t mean very much, given the "implosion on the both the right and left," he said. "Are you a Trumper or a Reagan Republican? Are you a centrist Democrat or an ultra-progressive [Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York] type?"

There’s no guarantee that people who are clear where they stand within a given party would answer honestly anyway, Abrams added.

Josh Lehman, a spokesperson for the Iowa regents, said the board is monitoring the new bill “and will follow the language if it moves through the legislative process.” The legislation was just introduced, he said, “and we will continue to work with the Legislature on any and all issues that relate to higher education.”

More Than Party Affiliation

This isn’t the only bill targeting faculty members in Iowa this legislative session. Brad Zaun, a Republican state senator, recently proposed a bill to end tenure at regents institutions -- as he has, unsuccessfully, several times before. A version was introduced in the Iowa House of Representatives this year as well.

Republican state legislators have also targeted faculty unions in Iowa, passing a 2017 law that gutted their collective bargaining rights.

Earlier this week, Republicans also introduced a bill to reduce funding to any Iowa school -- including community colleges and regents institutions -- that teaches The New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project.” Iowa native Nikole Hannah-Jones helped lead the project, which highlights the role of slavery in the nation’s founding. But the project has been political red meat for many Republican politicians, including former president Trump, who lambasted in it launching his now-defunct Presidential Advisory 1776 Commission.

Echoing Trump's similarly voided executive order on diversity training, separate Republican legislation in Arkansas this term seeks to prohibit K-12 schools and two- and four-year public institutions from teaching any course that (interestingly, given the events of Jan. 6) "promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government" or "division between, resentment of, or social justice" for a race, political affiliation, gender or other category.

Loren Glass, chair of English at the University of Iowa and president of the campus American Association of University Professors chapter, said he’s been reassured that the bills will not become law and pointed out that Zaun “submits that antitenure bill every session.”

Nevertheless, Glass said, “faculty are understandably concerned that Republicans in the Legislature don’t seem to appreciate how much our work benefits the state. The Legislature is making it harder to recruit quality faculty and students. Our rankings will be affected, and it’s terrible for morale.”

Becky Hawbaker, an assistant professor of education and president of the University of Northern Iowa's faculty union, said Zaun's bill "stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose, benefits and limits of tenure," which faculty members are trying to address through outreach.

Abrams said that asking whether colleges and universities have an ideological diversity problem is valid, and he ventured that before achieving tenure conservative faculty members in particular may struggle to find venues in which to publish and otherwise fit in in academe. Students also struggle, he said. But legislating a way forward -- particularly via ideological litmus tests -- is not the answer.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education this week launched a new legal defense fund and 24-7 hotline for public college and university faculty members, citing a rise in threats of censorship and punishment for speech and research. FIRE this week also warned of a “troubling trend of legislative intrusions into how faculty at institutions of higher education teach” for this legislative session.

Most of these legislative measures seek to remedy perceived bias against conservatives in the classroom, FIRE said, but they “threaten to undermine academic freedom, a bedrock principle that higher education depends upon for its success.”

FIRE’s analysis cites a new, Republican-backed bill in Florida that seeks not a survey of faculty members’ political beliefs but annual assessments of intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity, and would prevent the “shielding” of Florida college students from “certain speech” or activities. Students would also be able to record some classroom sessions.

“While FIRE itself has been conducting surveys exploring the climate for free speech on college campuses and thinks that similar studies can provide valuable data,” the group said of this bill, “such studies must be conducted apolitically and with sound methodology.”

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