• Can a Political Litmus Test Be Placed on Higher Education Job Candidates?

    Many of us are familiar with typical job interview questions that ask about your strengths and weaknesses. For obvious reasons, interviewers generally tend to shy away from controversial questions about political or religious beliefs. But a proposed new law in Iowa wanted to force some higher education workers to declare their political allegiance during the interview process. It was part of a legislative effort to ensure “partisan balance” in colleges and universities.

    Politicized Interviewing

    The state of Iowa is no stranger to political battles involving higher education. Recently, legislators introduced bills that would eliminate both tenure and collective bargaining rights at state public schools. Although such moves have been pursued in other states, Iowa’s partisan balance bill was much more unorthodox and controversial.

    The bill wanted to require job candidates to divulge their party registration in an effort to ensure that no single political party is over-represented among the faculty. According to the bill, faculty members of any given party could not outnumber faculty members of another party by more than 10 percent. Applicants who did not claim any political affiliation would not be counted in the overall tally. To ensure accuracy, supporters of the bill requested state election officials to provide voter registration information, in an effort to prevent candidates from pleading the fifth on their political persuasion or claiming status as an independent.

    The bill’s bottom line: The university is prohibited from hiring you if your political allegiance tips the acceptable 10 percent political difference among faculty. This applies even if you are an ideal candidate.

    Is this the Future?

    If you are thinking this is an isolated incident affecting only Iowa, think again. A similar bill was introduced in the North Carolina legislature shortly after Iowa’s proposed law. North Carolina’s bill, in fact, went even further, calling for no more than a two percent difference in party affiliation among faculty.

    Both bills were widely criticized, with some opponents calling the bills a de facto litmus test on political beliefs. The American Association of University Professors came out forcefully against both bills, claiming that this type of legislation is unconstitutional and has a “chilling effect” on university hiring. Other political opponents of the bills also called them “unenforceable,” and expressed concern that they could severely hamper each state’s ability to compete for the best workers in higher education.

    However, supporters of the bills, believed this was an honest attempt to restore ideological balance to university faculties that tend to be heavily skewed in their political makeup. Proponents of the North Carolina bill noted that the over-representation of one party does not reflect the actual political distribution of statewide voters.

    The Takeaway

    It is unlikely that the proposed Iowa and North Carolina bills would have passed legal muster. And ultimately, both were withdrawn from the legislature. However, the fact that such movements are underway, points to future attempts at introducing political partisan screening in the education field. Although an ideologically-balanced faculty may appear reasonable, establishing political litmus tests for job candidates will most certainly backfire—especially in higher education where freedom of expression is cherished and expected.

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