Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

city administration politics

Indiana lawmakers want to tighten oversight of tenure. Educators worry about academic freedom

casb202021524.jpg

University faculty are speaking out in opposition to Senate Bill 202, a controversial bill that would heighten legislative overview of Indiana’s public universities to increase “intellectual diversity” and change tenure criteria. 

Authored by Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, the bill would change the way university boards of trustees are elected by removing appointment power from alumni councils, instead giving it to House and Senate Republican majority leaders.  

The bill passed through the Senate earlier this month and had its first House reading Feb. 12. It saw hours of critical testimony at the statehouse from educators across the state.  

Indiana isn’t the first to introduce this kind of legislation. A similar bill was passed in Florida in 2022, and others have been introduced in states such as Texas, North Dakota and Louisiana. Republican lawmakers have expressed grievances with course content such as teaching about race, and expressed concern that tenure allows faculty members to be less productive, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

“Recent events and blatant antisemitism have placed a spotlight on the hyper-politicalization and monolithic thinking of American higher education institutions, and many are warning that universities have lost their way,” Deery said in a press release.  

Currently, IU’s board of trustees consists of eight members — three of whom are elected by the alumni association, five of whom are appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and one who is a student representative. The bill would cut down the number of trustees elected by the alumni council from three to just one, leaving the other two up to legislators.

RelatedIndiana AG Rokita’s new education portal allows anyone to report controversial curricula The site has faced criticism over lack of clarity and publishing of private information. 

 

“The thinking behind that is these are state institutions,” Deery said. “The general assembly sends hundreds of millions of dollars to them, and they wanted to have some input on the leadership of those institutions.” 

The bill would also require boards’ diversity committees to consider “intellectual diversity” along with cultural diversity in faculty complaints and employment policies. Committees would be required to make recommendations to promote and maintain recruitment and retention of  “underrepresented” students — such as students who hold conservative beliefs — rather than “minority students,” which is specified in current Indiana law.  

Additionally, the legislation would change tenure policies. Boards of trustees would have to prohibit faculty members from being granted tenure or a promotion if they deem the faculty member unlikely to foster free inquiry and expression or unlikely to offer students learning material from a variety of standpoints.  

The specific policies would be left up to each individual institution, but the bill mandates that boards would need to conduct reviews of tenured faculty every five years based on the criteria they establish and whether or not the faculty “adequately performed academic duties and obligations.” Post-tenure reviews are periodic peer evaluations of faculty performance that assess a faculty member’s performance and accomplishments.  

IU-Bloomington’s campus has over 1,000 tenured faculty, according to a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, which would mean IU would need to conduct more than 200 reviews each year to keep up if the bill became law.  

Deery said the bill is a response to concerns about the perception and experience of higher education among conservative students. He cited a 2023 Gallup poll, which found the percentage of Republicans with confidence in higher education declined from 56% in 2019 to 19% in 2023. He also referenced a 2022 Gallup survey which found only 46% of conservative Indiana students believed they could openly express their opinions, compared to 79% of liberal students, but the IDS could not find poll results to support this claim.

Even if these numbers are only perceptions of a campus climate, Deery said, they still matter. 

“There’s a number of people that I’ve talked to, and you can find it in survey data as well, that just don’t feel like higher education is the place for them because of a reputation of being rather monolithic in thinking, and sometimes, frankly, rather hostile to some traditional and conservative views,” Deery said.  

The legislation has proven controversial, with many representatives from universities across Indiana testifying the bill would inhibit academic freedom. However, Deery argued the bill would be nothing new — in Indiana, promotions to tenure move through faculty committees before being reviewed by the provost of a university, who makes recommendations which are voted on by boards of trustees.  

Post-tenure reviews take place at 67% of public universities, according to the American Association of University Professors. At Indiana State University, for instance, tenured faculty are reviewed every three years. At IU- Bloomington, professors on the tenure track receive a review after their first five years that determines whether they receive tenure. 

If Senate Bill 202 were to become law, Deery said, he envisions professors being asked to provide examples of the ways they meet boards’ criteria, including how they are good mentors to students and how they foster diversity in thinking. It’s meant to encourage professors to continue rigorous work even if they receive tenure.  

“You might have a professor that, once they got tenure, they stopped working, they stopped researching, maybe they sort of viewed the classroom more as an opportunity to just cultivate their own kind of personal group of political activists, and there are some problems there,” Deery said.  

The bill mandates institutions to adopt policies establishing disciplinary action for professors who are found to not meet the bill’s criteria; these actions could include termination, demotion, salary reductions or other actions as determined by the university.  

“In extreme circumstances, they might potentially be asked to leave the university, although I would envision those as being very rare circumstances,” Deery said. “Because first of all, most professors are excellent and that’s not an issue, and with a tenure review, those that aren’t would likely review and change that.” 

RelatedIndiana Senate Bill would require school boards to post information related to human sexual instruction The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education Feb. 12.

President Whitten, professors oppose legislation  

Senate Bill 202 seeks to increase protections for faculty in Indiana against being fired or denied tenure for the content of their research, for criticizing administrators or for outside, non-class-related political activities. These factors could not be considered by boards in determining whether a faculty member has adequately met their academic obligations. The bill also does not mandate the teaching of any particular content or require faculty to expose students to every kind of thought or idea, Deery said.  

But faculty and administrators say they fear the bill’s potential impact on academic freedom and the reputation of Indiana’s Research 1 universities, which include IU-Bloomington, Purdue University-West Lafayette and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.  

“We are deeply concerned about language regarding faculty tenure that would put academic freedom at risk, weaken the intellectual rigor essential to preparing students with critical thinking skills, and damage our ability to compete for the world-class faculty who are at the core of what makes IU an extraordinary research institution,” IU President Pamela Whitten said in a statement. “We all share the common goal to maximize the university’s capacity to make scientific breakthroughs, attract talented students and faculty, drive economic development, and create better outcomes for all Hoosiers.”  

The IU Board of Trustees does not have an official spokesperson, but chair Quinn Buckner referred to President Whitten’s statement on behalf of the board.  

Deery responded to Whitten’s comments in a statement, saying that representatives from IU were consulted and asked to provide feedback on the bill before it was presented.  

Robert Eno, a retired IU professor and member of the IU chapter of the American Association for University Professors, said the legislation could damage the status of Indiana’s research universities which would have an enormous impact on the state’s culture.  

He acknowledged that students whose viewpoints don’t fit the status quo of the majority of the student body may feel constrained from speaking out. However, he said, universities should be able to examine the prevalence of these problems themselves rather than having legislators who are far removed from university faculty intervene.  

“Not only is it a counterproductive way to go about it, but it’s going to wind up having this unintended consequence of deeply harming the educational profile of our universities,” Eno said.  

The IU-Bloomington and Purdue-West Lafayette AAUP chapters released a joint statement criticizing the bill, in which they said the security imparted by tenure is the fundamental protection of academic freedom. They urged legislators to take a different approach in addressing their concerns, advocating for a path that would strengthen rather than threaten Indiana’s universities.  

Senate Bill 202 states boards of trustees’ appointment power would be given to general assembly Republican leaders, “with advice” from Democrat minority leaders. Hussein Banai, an associate professor of international studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, said he ultimately thinks it’s meant to superimpose a conservative orthodoxy in universities.  

“This is not a bipartisan group of legislators that’s come together and said, ‘Llet’s solve a problem,’ right?” Banai said. “It’s a very partisan group of reactionaries inside the supermajority statehouse.”  

If passed, the bill could deter professors and researchers from coming to Indiana universities, he said, because research would be politicized. This would affect not only universities and students but the state’s economic and educational outlook as well. Banai said the bill misunderstands the work and intention of he and his colleagues, who are much more concerned with teaching students how to think, not what to think.  

“The question of intellectual diversities itself is a bit of a way of framing people into a kind of binary dialogue — do you have enough of this view, or do you have enough of that view?” Banai said. “And it’s a trap, because the enterprise of higher education is much more than telling students what to think. I mean, I don't do that. I don't know anyone who does that. It's about teaching students how to learn, how to think critically, what questions to ask.” 

Obtaining tenure is already a stressful, challenging process for professors, who are met with high expectations and the threat of losing job security if they aren’t awarded tenure. Banai said he worries professors would be held from or lose tenure if the legislature-appointed trustee members simply disagree ideologically with a professor’s research or other work.  

While many faculty members may hold progressive views, he said, there is vast disagreement in terms of the actual application of those views and the work they carry out, and a professor’s scholarly work doesn’t always reflect their personal political beliefs.  

He said the bill does the very thing it seeks to eliminate. 

“It would suit the ideological interests of those political partisans who would like to see universities turn into not houses of learning or intellect, but houses of indoctrination for conservative political ideas,” Banai said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the IDS has not been able to verify a statistic cited by Deery.

RelatedIU faculty and students condemn ‘new McCarthyism’ in free speech rallyThe rally comes after several controversies on campus.

Get stories like this in your inbox
Subscribe