The perception of the college professor is mixed. People know great teachers who teach great stuff. But, then there are the “other” professors. Slovenly folk with elbow patches, teaching our nation’s youth completely useless skills. Or, not teaching at all because they’ve gotten tenure and can spend their time pondering another scholar’s recent writings on another scholar’s writings on another’s interpretation of someone long-dead. All of this in the midst of an enormous student debt crisis and underemployment of our nation’s youth. If you think that’s who college professors are, I can see how you might be upset. I find the student debt upsetting also. I only recently paid off my own student loans. It’s a problem we need to fix.
In the middle of last year, the State of Wisconsin passed legislation to reduce tenure protections in the public university system. This month Iowa and Missouri followed. I love Iowa, and am proud to be an Iowan, and this bill makes me terrified as a citizen. Allow me to explain…
Nestled among the University of Iowa’s faculty are physicians. These physicians treat patients, but they also are expected to devote their time to scholarly activities. They do biomedical research, they invent new treatments, and they investigate how to make healthcare better. These physicians are so incredibly important. Tenure gives them the protection to take on the highest risks projects – the ones that might not work but, if they did, would have an enormous impact on people’s lives. They often trade a higher salary to be part of the research enterprise. These doctors keep our medical school at the cutting edge. They work in our state’s only nationally recognized children’s teaching hospital. They keep our state’s healthcare innovative. They are the leaders in healthcare. And, without them, there is no medical school.
Why is this a problem for Iowa? Missouri and Wisconsin have private medical schools. Our public medical school is the only MD-degree granting institution in the state and tenure is an important tool in recruiting talented physician teachers and scholars. Without the University of Iowa, Iowans will have to go to other states for state-of-the-art healthcare. Beyond recruiting talented physicians here, it will also become more difficult to keep quality physicians if the medical school is hurt. Physicians who train in Iowa often stay in Iowa. They become community doctors. Students who leave Iowa to attend medical school are less likely to come back.
Finally, tenure track faculty teach the students that feed the physician pipeline. Pre-med students are all trained by tenure track faculty at the undergraduate level. Our state’s best undergraduate programs are in the public universities. If we lose talent because faculty are recruited away and students don’t feel they are being well-prepared for professional school, students may choose private or out-of-state universities. This doesn’t help the student debt problem. An education at our state’s public universities is still a bargain.
I understand the anger and frustration over student debt, but tenure is not the problem. We need to empower our students earlier to think about how they will pay for college and what they hope to gain. We need to get them, and their parents, thinking about how they will pay for college earlier. Right now, it sneaks up on them and many see student loans as their only option. I would propose that, instead of gutting an important state asset, we invest in teaching our K-12 students the foundations of personal finance. Put college on their radar early and encourage them that they need to consider cost-benefit and prepare sooner. We need to change our culture to believe that it’s not reasonable to fund an education entirely with student loans.
As a citizen, I am grateful for the fantastic healthcare I receive in our state and I hope that my fellow Iowans give careful thought to the potential implications of eliminating tenure here.