President Pamela Whitten, over two months into her new position, is taking the reins of one of the largest institutions in the state as the first female president in IU’s over-200-year history.
Whitten and her administration will continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as confront challenges such as a lack of diversity. She hopes to connect with students and affect change in her new role.
In looking toward the future, Whitten reflected on her path to the presidency and discussed her goals.
Reflecting on her experience
Adding the role of IU’s 19th president to her resume, Whitten brings a variety of experience from colleges like Kennesaw State University, the University of Georgia and Michigan State University.
In her academic career, she earned a bachelor’s degree in management at Tulane University and a master’s degree in communication at the University of Kentucky. Whitten also graduated with a Ph.D. in communication studies at the University of Kansas.
Whitten took up a position in 1993 as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. From 1995 to 1998, Whitten served as the inaugural director of information technology services and research, as well as an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Afterward, Whitten moved to Michigan State to become a research fellow in health care studies. She worked her way through many professor positions, ultimately being promoted to dean of the College of Communication Arts & Sciences in 2009.
Her highest ranking leadership positions have come within the last 10 years. At the University of Georgia, she became the senior vice president of academic affairs as well as the provost. Then in 2018, she became the president at Kennesaw State.
Whitten has also been recognized for her expertise in telemedicine. When Whitten was working in the field, she said she received large federal grants that would be used to insert telemedicine technologies into multiple health settings.
She said she once worked on a project where she and a team placed telemedicine equipment into elementary schools so kids who were sick could instantly be linked to a doctor in real time. Children could then get a diagnosis without their parents having to leave work to come take them to the doctor.
From working at a medical school to another Big Ten school in the Midwest, Whitten said she feels her range of expertise in the more than 30 years she’s worked has prepared her to be IU’s president.
“It's just kind of an interesting portfolio package that I think gives me some good insight,” Whitten said.
Being IU’s first female president
Whitten said women were not often university presidents when she was in college in the ‘80s. She said she can’t remember any female presidents of large, public and prestigious institutions.
“It's incredible in that short amount of time to have come from not even being something you would envision to being something that's natural and accepted,” Whitten said.
Whitten said she can also appreciate her inauguration as the first female president as an important milestone for IU.
“I will say that the response here — it's been wonderful,” she said. “Everyone is just delighted and excited that we've hit this milestone across the board and frankly, I think that speaks very well of Indiana University as well.”
Listening to the student perspective
Whitten said she is committed to listening and learning from the students she serves.
“Part of what I've asked my office is that we never lose sight that every week I need to be spending time with students,” Whitten said.
She said she can do so both informally and formally, whether that be sitting down with students for a few minutes or scheduling meetings with student organizations like IU Student Government.
In June, an online survey was shared so students could submit their thoughts, issues and concerns to Whitten. The responses gave her office a starting point on how to address the issues students really cared about, and the main concern, she said, among others, was how students would return to campus this semester.
“They wanted the opportunity to have a normal college year again, with all the experiences that brought with it,” Whitten said.
It’s nothing personal to Whitten if some students don’t yet know her name, as she plans to connect with more students and learn about their passions and interests.
If you don’t know much about her, she said some fun facts are that she's gone skydiving and loves M&M's.
Confronting the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Indiana, with over 5,000 cases recorded on Sept. 2, whereas July saw case counts generally below 200.
As of Sept. 2, the vaccination rate of students was reported at 86.7%, while faculty and staff were reported at 91.8%. Whitten said she was proud of the high vaccination rates because they help make campus a more protected environment.
“Our campus is one of the safest places right now because of the extraordinary vaccination rates and because of everyone's efforts to do the things to keep everybody safe,” Whitten said.
In July, Whitten said in an email that she tested positive for COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated. Whitten said she did not get severely sick and her main symptom was a stuffy nose.
“I’m hopefully the living, walking example about why you want to be vaccinated,” Whitten said.
The university continues to hold COVID-19 Ask Aaron webinars with Dr. Aaron Carroll, release a COVID-19 and vaccination dashboard and conduct mitigation testing, which is mandatory for unvaccinated individuals and as needed for those who are vaccinated.
As a priority, Whitten said she hopes to increase the diversity of faculty, staff and students and create a sense of belonging for everyone on campus.
“We need to be a leader in initiatives related to diversity and equity and inclusion and not only lead by example but hopefully come up with novel solutions that can be used throughout the state as well,” Whitten said.
Whitten said she is working with IU leadership, by looking at what was done in the past and then looking forward to create innovative opportunities to recruit students of diverse backgrounds.
Whitten said she has already spoken to some students from underrepresented communities and plans to speak with more soon, such as those from the Black and LGBTQ communities.
“Where are we as an institution and where are there opportunities to really advance and improve the climate and culture that would make this home to everyone that studies or works here,” Whitten said.
An annual 2019-2020 report from the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural affairs shows IU Bloomington has slowly climbed in terms of minority representation of students on campus. This year, IU enrolled a record number of students of color with 10,853.
According to 2020 IU faculty and staff factbook numbers, white faculty and staff vastly outweigh those who identify within minority groups at IU Bloomington, with 7,656 white staff members compared to 1,541 identifying in minority groups.
Setting her goals
Whitten said she has set three major goals for herself at IU since arriving about two months ago. This includes putting students first, promoting IU’s research and discovery projects and improving the lives of people throughout Indiana.
She recently started a new blog sent out as an email to faculty, staff and students, called Written by Whitten, to focus on any important updates at IU.
“In the short term, it provides just snippets of the things that are important or we're proud of or need to be talked about,” Whitten said. ”In the long, long term, I hope that, as a compilation, they’re a reflection of the values that we have at Indiana University.”
Whitten said she does not yet have any planned initiatives or specific plans to share, but that students should see more as she settles into her presidency.