Political Affiliation is Not an Employer’s Business — Especially in Education

Academic Freedom, Legislation

House Study Bill 199 in Iowa, allegedly aimed at addressing concerns over free speech “suppression” at Iowa universities, proposes some interesting changes to college education. Other bills have also proposed banning tenure and surveying and reporting of university employee political affiliations. 

This new bill would require the posting of syllabi online, including a “general description of the subject matter of any lecture or discussion,” according to The Gazette

The syllabi bill appears to have been sparked in part by a syllabus warning by an ISU professor against “intentional ‘othering’ like racism, sexism or homophobia” which also stated that students could not address a topic that “takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic rights as you do (i.e. no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.),” according to The Gazette. The professor was later asked by the university to revise her syllabus after the statement received backlash and she was reprimanded, according to The Gazette

Man taking a survey
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The bill regarding employee political affiliation, Senate 292, would require that the Board of Regents conduct a survey of “all of the employees of the institutions governed by the state board” to determine “political party affiliations of all such persons,” although individual employee names won’t be listed. It appears the bill was introduced Feb. 9 and referred to the Education Subcommittee Feb. 10. 

“In terms of hiring faculty, it would be wholly inappropriate for [us] to be asking at the point of hire what their political party is to ensure that we have some sort of political balance,” the Des Monies Register quotes Chief Academic Officer for the Iowa Board of Regents Rachel Boon as saying. 

The tenure ban has been attempted a few times in the past, but most have died early in the legislative process. The attempt to ban tenure has arisen as at least in part over concerns that conservative students “feel their viewpoints are unwelcome” on campus and incidents that are alleged to “show political bias on the part of university faculty and administrators,” according to the Des Moines Register. Opponents of the law point out that it would make Iowa’s universities less able to compete for the most qualified applicants. 

There are ultimately three different laws involved here, but I think all raise potentially troubling issues for academia, particularly regarding academic freedom for faculty. I can see arguments for posting of syllabi; indeed, many institutions already do this, or at least keep copies for records purposes, and I suspect most faculty would be on board or willing. However, I’m not sure this is something the legislature should be determining for the individual institution. 

The other two are more troubling. With regard to tenure, it sounds like opponents have already pointed out the issues this will likely cause in driving away faculty that can get jobs elsewhere and reducing the quality of applicants. Unless they’re offering a major salary increase or other major benefits to compensate, why would anyone want to work for them if they can work elsewhere? I would also argue that this is also the sort of the thing that the individual institutions ought to manage and decide.

But for me, the biggest issue is surveying employees regarding political “affiliation.” Even ignoring the tradition of academic freedom, that sounds odious. Yes, it sounds like it’s going to be anonymous at least in theory — or at least that your identifying information won’t be shared publicly — but we all know leaks and hacks happen. Furthermore, if it’s anonymous how do they ensure compliance or truthfulness? 

And for the vast majority of employees, why does it matter? For someone in the registrar’s office or the cleaning staff or the athletic staff or the financial aid office, for example, what does their political affiliation matter? Even if we can accept the premise that it matters for faculty because of the potential that faculty might influence students, what are we going to do with that information? Are we going to have some sort of affirmative action plan for political parties? Are we going to make hiring decisions based on political party? As Boon says, that would be inappropriate. 

And what about librarians? Librarians have a set of ethical guidelines that already address issues related to potential biases; we collect information and help patrons based on their information needs and wants, not based on our own political affiliation. To me, this is the ultimate point with all of this — librarians, faculty, etc. are professionals. The vast majority of them are not abusing their position to inappropriately influence young minds. For the few bad apples, internal discipline can manage it.  

A man under someone’s thumb
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Overall, this move just seems calculated to have a chilling effect on employee — especially faculty — political participation. 

And ultimately all of this raises tones of suppression of academic freedom and chilling of speech, especially when all three acts are considered together. Yes, there are lines faculty should not cross regarding freedom of student speech and opinion, etc. But we also need to respect faculty’s academic freedom and the need for faculty to be able to raise controversial issues in the classroom. Faculty should not push their opinions on students — or make students feel denigrated for their opinions — but they should encourage students to question and strongly analyze their opinions. That’s part of the point of college. Making faculty afraid that if they touch on anything considered “political” or controversial they might lose their job is going to put a serious damper on real academic debate and thought, and we will all be poorer for that.  

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