Faculty

Iowa Bill Would Force Universities to Consider Political Affiliation in Faculty Hiring

February 22, 2017

Charlie Neibergall, AP Images
State Sen. Mark Chelgren, an Iowa Republican: "It is imperative that the students, the customers, have as much information as possible."
Iowa’s public universities would have to base faculty-hiring decisions on applicants’ political-party affiliations under a bill pending before the State Senate’s Education Committee.

The measure, SF 288, would require the state’s three public universities to gather voter-registration data on prospective instructors and not make any hire that would cause either Democrats or Republicans on an institution’s faculty to outnumber each other by more than 10 percent.

Universities would work with the state’s commissioner of elections to collect applicants’ voter-registration data, and applicants who have not declared an affiliation with either of the two major parties would be exempt from having their political backgrounds considered.

The bill does not specify which political party it regards as underrepresented on campuses. But its sponsor, State Sen. Mark Chelgren, is a conservative Republican who previously has criticized the faculties of Iowa’s public universities. Two years ago he proposed an unusual bill that would have subjected even tenured professors to being fired if enough students gave them poor evaluations or voted for their dismissal.

In an interview on Tuesday, Senator Chelgren said his latest measure would promote both ideological diversity and ideological transparency at the state’s three public universities.

"I believe it is imperative that the students, the customers, have as much information as possible," he said. "Students who are paying the bills — tuition at universities — should have an understanding of the political affiliations that professors are associated with, so when they ask a question, they can put it in context."

‘Wackadoodle’

The Iowa Board of Regents declared its opposition to the bill in a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon by Josh Lehman, a board spokesman. "We expect our universities to hire the most qualified faculty to teach our students, and we believe in diversity of thought," Mr. Lehman said.

The bill was denounced as "wackadoodle" by State Sen. Herman C. Quirmbach, a Democrat who is a top member of the Senate Education Committee and an associate professor of economics at Iowa State University.

“The notion that we would have some sort of political litmus test in hiring faculty is abhorrent. It is blatant violation of academic freedom.”
"The notion that we would have some sort of political litmus test in hiring faculty is abhorrent. It is blatant violation of academic freedom," Senator Quirmbach said. "Even the filing of a bill like this will make it that much more difficult for Iowa State, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa to recruit top faculty."

Senator Quirmbach called the measure "completely unenforceable," especially considering that Iowa’s public universities hire from other states, including some with voter-registration laws that do not require, or even ask, people to state their party affiliation.

Similar legislation, calling for the ideological balance of the faculties of North Carolina’s public universities to closely reflect party-registration figures in that state, was proposed and shelved on Monday night as part of a debate over a bill, H 39, to shrink the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors.

In an interview on Tuesday, State Sen. Ralph E. Hise Jr., a Republican, said he had proposed the language amending the board bill not because he hoped to see it passed, but to make a point. He was trying to register his objection to other proposed amendments that would have reserved board seats for certain demographic groups or members of certain political parties.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.