As It Happens

Iowa senator pushes bill requiring universities to check professors' political affiliation before hiring

Republican Iowa Senator Mark Chelgren thinks universities need to grill potential professors on their political affiliation when they're being interviewed — and make sure Republicans and Democrats are equally represented at the lectern.
School mascot Herky the Hawk stands in front of the Old Capitol Museum at the University of Iowa. An Iowa senator has proposed a bill to balance what he says is a political bias on state campuses. (Koh Gui Qing/Reuters)

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The job interview question might go something like: "What are your political leanings?" Or, more to the point: "Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"

It's a safe bet that the vast majority of job interviews in the U.S. don't tread into that territory. But Republican Senator Mark Chelgren wants to change that — specifically, for professors applying for jobs at Iowa universities.

Chelgren has introduced a bill that would ask prospective academic hires for their political affiliation. It also proposes a hiring freeze until the number of Republican and Democrat professors on the faculty falls within 10 per cent of each other.

Chelgren spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about his proposed legislation. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Senator Chelgren, do you think there are too many Democrats on the faculties of Iowa universities right now? 
Mark Chelgren is a Republican State Senator for Ottumwa. (AP)

Mark Chelgren: No, I don't think there are too many Democrats, necessarily. The bill that I wrote specifically says we need to have diversity of opinion, political. My goal is to make sure we have a balance. Now, since my bill has been submitted, I have gotten quite a few emails and calls explaining to me that other people do believe that there are too many Democrats. It's been interesting to hear their perspectives. 

HM: What actual evidence do you have that there isn't that political diversity?

MC: Well, when I submitted the bill, I actually had quite a few phone calls. I had quite a few emails. I've had quite a few individuals who've linked me to articles telling me that there isn't that kind of diversity — that universities are turning into echo chambers where political free speech is being inhibited.

' If they acknowledge that they voted for Donald Trump, it almost disqualifies them in their peers' minds and so they choose to remain quiet.' - Mark Chelgren, Iowa senator 

HM: Can you give us some examples?

MC: I've had people directly contact me telling me that they are uncomfortable because if they mention that they might have voted for Donald Trump, for instance, that that might put them as ineligible to become tenured in the future. If they acknowledge that they voted for Donald Trump, it almost disqualifies them in in their peers' minds and so they choose to remain quiet. 

HM: Are they providing you with any factual support for their assumption that they might not get tenure because they voted Republican?

MC: If you pay attention to the actual bill that was written, the bill says that anyone who's registered as a third party or independent is not calculated. This specifically talks about a balance within 10 per cent of each other, of Republicans and Democrats. It says there should be a balance in hiring of those. 



HM: Why is this relevant if someone taking a physics course or an agriculture course? Why would the professor's affiliation matter?

MC: If the professor was simply teaching the facts, as I would hope they would do, it shouldn't matter. But if professors bring their political bias or their political opinions into a class that it may not be appropriate for, that would be one aspect of it. Hopefully, you wouldn't have that case. But I have heard many stories about professor who literally said, "I want to know who voted, how you voted and why."

HM: Do you have evidence of that?

MC: I have that from individuals who've contacted me and explained that's what has happened to them.

HM: A lot of individuals? How many people have written you about that or contacted you?

MC: I've been contacted by dozens of people. It seems like you don't believe that there are individuals at the universities who allow their political feelings and emotions to impact their decision making.

HM: It's not that I don't believe you one way or another, I'm just asking for actual evidence since you're saying that you've had all these reports. I'm just wondering how concrete those reports are and what universities you're talking about. What institutions?

MC: My bill specifically talks about the Regents Universities in Iowa, which is University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa.

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann talks with Mark Chelgren of Ottumwa, Iowa, while tailgating before an NCAA college football game on Sept. 10, 2011, in Ames, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

HM: If I want a job on a faculty at one of those institutions what do I do? Do I have to pull out my card and show my party membership?

MC: Actually, it's already public information in the state of Iowa. So if you want a job at one of those institutions and there's already a substantially disproportionate amount of someone with your political affiliation then effectively someone else would have preference on that hiring.

HM: The fundamentals of universities usually are based on the fact that people have intellectual freedom and the right to say what they think. Some of your fellow lawmakers are even saying the bill is unconstitutional. What do you say to them?

MC: The bill was written specifically so we could have a dialogue about what, ideally, universities should be doing. I appreciate you asking me to talk to you today because clearly that dialogue is happening. 

There should be an equality of Democratic and Republican professors at Iowa universities, a Republican senator says. (Shutterstock / wk1003mike)

HM: So do you see this bill as actually becoming law or is this more symbolic about opening up this dialogue you're discussing?

MC: I think it's probably a lot more symbolic. I don't really think it's going to become law. But I think it's something that sends a very clear message to universities that we'd like them to take seriously that when they talk about diversity, they need to be thinking about diversity with a larger D and making sure we have differential thought that can be openly espoused at our universities without harassment or bullying or any other effects to try to shut people down and no repercussions for those who speak honestly about their opinions.

HM: Last fall, another Iowa Republican tabled the "Suck It Up Buttercup" bill. The idea was to target he called "campus hysteria" after President Donald Trump was elected. Is there something going on among Iowa Republicans about trying to make a point campus politics?

MC: Well, I would ask if there's not a problem with maybe some of our campuses. I would hope that we wouldn't need these bills, including my own. I would hope that we would have much higher levels of professionalism. But if you've got situations where professors can't even teach classes because they're so upset. I would say there's clearly some unprofessional behaviour happening and we should probably address it.

Hillary Clinton waves to supporters after a campaign rally at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 30, 2016. A Republican senator says campuses in his state have a Democratic bias. (Adrees Latif /Reuters)

HM: And you actually have professors who say they can't teach because they are so upset about the political environment?

MC: I said if we have that we have to deal with it. I can't speak for the "Suck It Up Buttercup" that he mentioned before. I wasn't part of that bill. I'm sure you'd probably be able to talk to the representative who submitted that bill.

HM: We have. We've spoken to him already actually about this.

MC: Great.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Senator Mark Chelgren.

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