A simple question for the students of Iowa State: what do you want from your education here?
It’s a question, at face value, you’ve probably heard before. Parents, family members, and job interviewers, among others, tend to ask these types of questions to gain a sense of college students’ goals and aspirations.
However, there’s more to the question than what meets the eye. Education is more than a single person navigating the hustle and bustle of classwork and building a job-worthy resume.
There’s a collective element to education involving professorsーthose highly-educated, highly-qualified individuals who teach classes. Professors teach students not only the content of their subject areas but, more broadly, how to think critically.
Recently proposed legislation in Iowa’s legislature has featured much debate over education and its goals. Professors have primarily been the subject matter; likewise, they have much to say about it. This legislation, should it pass, would redefine their jobs and the very question: what is the goal of an education?
These proposals cover a wide range of issues, such as removing tenure for academic professors and requiring the release of political affiliation in an attempt to usher out “anti-conservative bias.” This legislation, coming from the state of Iowa, would apply to Iowa’s public schools in the Iowa Board of Regents - Iowa State, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa.
Dr. Dirk Deam, teaching professor in the political science department, spoke at length about these proposals. From a knowledgeable background in law, education, and politics, Deam finds the action “disturbing.”
“It’s really difficult for the university professors to defend themselves because from the perspective of the legislators... we’re the problem,” said Deam.
“Ultimately the university will have to step up and try to defend the idea of academic freedom.”
Discussing tenure, Deam described how the practice has been critical in developing the high-quality U.S. university system. It is also vital in the advancement of academic thought.
“Tenure is designed to protect what’s broadly called academic freedom; the idea is that researchers should be able to pursue those things that interest them wherever that may lead them,” said Deam.
The proposed bill would end the tenure system and leave professors in potentially uncomfortable situations.
“I’ve been worried for several years now that I’m going to offend someone in some way that is either going to get a complaint brought against me or is going to get a complaint brought to the legislature,” said Deam.
“I know that tenured professors are worried about [the proposals] and irritated with it.”
The implications could be devastating. Faculty members could be discouraged from their academic pursuits. Still, they could further alleviate the tension by leaving the state to work for institutions in other states with tenure still in place.
Dr. Peter Orazem, university professor in the economics department, spoke to the potential economic impacts of these measures. He sees professor migration as a significant problem, not just for those who leave in the short term. More importantly, future bright minds may never consider Iowa in their search for their research homes.
“If it does pass, I think you would see a tremendous decline in the reputation of Iowa among universities and a potential loss of resources,” Orazem said.
The umbrella of “resources” Orazem refers to includes faculty and their research. He states how vital Iowa’s universities have been to further the state’s economy throughout their history. This includes one of the primary functions of Iowa’s economy: agriculture.
“I would guess that you would see a decline in the amount of research dedicated to improving the profitability of agriculture in Iowa,” said Orazem.
“The economic footprint of the university would clearly decline.”
Other staples of the Iowa State institution that could be affected include the nationally-acclaimed Ames Laboratory, responsible for meaningful contributions to energy research. Overall, Iowa State could lose its status as a Research I university, something the university values as one of its most essential identities.
“There are no Research I universities that don’t have tenure. So we would probably lose our ability to attract research dollars at Iowa State, and certainly the quality of research done at Iowa State would decline,” Orazem said.
Within the economics department, Orazem is proud of the development and improvements he has been a part of over the years. However, as he nears retirement, his bigger worry from this legislation would be future regression.
Meanwhile, Dr. Deam sees the whole situation centered on a shifting political atmosphere, particularly among state legislatures.
“In the traditions of our legislatures… this stuff used to always be the fringe,” Deam said.
Deam points to growing political tensions and diverging ideologies as reasons to be concerned about the proposal’s ability to pass. The dangers appear to be clear with this example; Deam lists “provoking opponents,” “scaring opponents,” and “irritating people as a way of getting attention” as the goals of this legislation - not necessarily what is desired of governmental entities.
Deam reflects on growing up in Kansas with a strong political background. His father was an active figure in the state government.
“I can remember back when I was even a teenager, there would be bills like this that would come up every once in a while from somebody who was trying to make a point and everybody would laugh it off,” said Deam.
“That doesn’t happen anymore. The stuff that generally was considered fringe or extreme is more and more the general business of the legislature.”
Orazem also discussed his view on the ability of these proposals to pass. He sees action from outside groups as roadblocks for the legislationーgroups such as the Corn Growers and the National Pork Producers Council. They do not support the legislation.
“This has been pushed to increase the visibility of certain members of the Iowa House and Senate who want to run for office, and they think they haven’t done much,” said Orazem.
“So that’s the main purpose for these things, and not that they actually think that these things are going to get implemented.”
Today’s political landscape has been colored with the words “cancel culture”, relating to the banning of insensitive matters and individuals who have been a part of them. The phrase has become synonymous with hostility towards lawmakers on different sides of the political spectrum.
As an issue generally criticized by Republican figures, Deam points to these proposals as a form of cancel culture itself, this time with Republican backing, as they currently have control in the Iowa legislature.
“Is it ‘two wrongs make a right?’ If you’re angry about what the other side does, does that mean it’s ok to do what you’re doing?” said Deam.
Orazem sees a similar issue from his point of view as a former public figure. He reflects on the time he spent on the Ames City Council and knows the ins and outs of what motivates legislators and their causes.
“Clearly the intent of [these proposed bills] is to try to discourage political actions by faculty, which I think is a violation of constitutional rights,” said Orazem.
“The whole point of this is not for research purposes, the whole point of this is to try to harass, and I find that to be objectionable.”
Deam, a lawyer, takes it a step further. The professor currently teaches a class on constitutional law, and the group is about to discuss the First Amendment in detail. Perhaps the most widely known First Amendment right is the freedom of speech.
“[Tenure] is basically an extension of the notion of free speech and free inquiry,” said Deam.
“Academic freedom was supposed to protect all of that. It’s hard not to be concerned in this sort of cultural context that we’re in right now, that speech is not really free.”
So what should be done? Often it is easy to become discouraged in the sight of conflicting interests between the government and the issuesーin this case, the Iowa legislature and professors.
From two informed and educated professors, the proposals would directly impact their work, either directly or indirectly. They sense the importance of maintaining academic integrity and hope universities and students step in.
Deam looks at his students and sees their potential to create positive change in this dilemma.
“I know with my own students, once you work with them for a while and train the habits of good learning, they actually really enjoy it and become much better people for itーnot because they’re taking some idea that I told them and sticking it in their head, but because they’re learning to think.”
“They need to communicate that back to their parents, and their parents need to understand that teaching students to think, to be well-prepared, to be well-rounded, is in the benefit of all of us, including the students.”
The students of Iowa State should take Dr. Deam’s words to heart. This issue doesn’t have to be about two sides: Republican or Democrat, right or wrong, or even good or bad. We should all see the importance of education in today’s world and how critical it has been to our development. It is everyone’s duty to support the ideals of free thought, learning how to think critically, and furthering human knowledge in every discipline. And being active in this matter, on a personal level, is a great start.
“Academic freedom has produced one of the greatest university systems in history in the United States,” said Deam.
“If people are so angry at the so-called Marxist university professors, like we’re all part of some great conspiracy, then why do they send their kids here? Why is it so important to have a college education?”
Deam points to a deeper problemーa sort of distrust in professors and education at a more fundamental level. He feels holding educational institutions as a primary method of advancement has been a critical part of the United States’ evolution. This cannot be halted by methods to suppress academic thought.
Indeed, these proposed bills hold deep meaning in the future of education.
“I think Iowans have to ask a question of what it is that they want from their higher education institutions,” said Deam.
Deam can see the trend in educational abandonment matching the direction of Iowa’s educational system. Deam noted how Iowa’s elementary, secondary, and university programs used to be “high-flying” and “highly-ranked” compared to national standards. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, as Iowa has seen a slip in its rankings in recent years.
“That’s something the legislature could deal with and I don’t think picking what professors say in class or what they write in their articles is going to improve that.”
So, Iowansーstudents, professors, citizens, parents, older and younger generationsーwhat do you want from your educational system?
To support professors and their teaching and research liberties, both Deam and Orazem point to the freedoms themselves as a critical piece of the puzzle. Further, education doesn’t happen without the students. Iowa State students should ask these questions and promote such values that have critically been a part of this institution since its inception.
No matter the issue, the professors of Iowa State University have opinions of their own. It’s critical for them to be heard when such issues will impact their jobs and their trade. After all, they hold knowledge and training that can transform the world, not only in their actions but what they pass along to future innovators.