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Tuesday, May 28
The Indiana Daily Student

campus administration

‘A vote is not a temper tantrum’: No confidence movement comes from years of tension

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President Pamela Whitten, IU’s 19th president and first woman to serve in the role, will be subject to a vote of no confidence Tuesday — not even three years after she first stepped foot on campus in the summer of 2021.  

The vote comes almost two decades after IU faculty last voted no confidence in a university president. Following the vote, then-president Adam Herbert said in 2006 that he would not renew his contract, which expired in 2008. 

Faculty will also consider no confidence votes for Provost Rahul Shrivastav, who served with Whitten at the University of Georgia, and Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Carrie Docherty. 

The movement for a no confidence vote in the administration has brewed for years. It is the second major attempt since Whitten took office. The first attempt, which specifically targeted the provost due to his handling of the graduate workers strike, failed to make the agenda for the May 2022 all-faculty meeting for a procedural reason.  

Instead, faculty members voted on several other resolutions concerning the graduate worker strike. More than 80% of faculty voted in favor of a resolution to protect graduate workers from being fired for striking and 1,912 of the 2,900 voting-eligible faculty members filled out ballots. 

The IDS asked for an interview with Whitten and Shrivastav to discuss the upcoming vote but did not receive a response by publication.  

“The current climate in higher education is uniquely challenging, with universities addressing and adapting to unprecedented new pressures and demands. Indiana University continues to evolve in ways that keeps it on a positive and powerful trajectory forward,” Mark Bode, executive director of media relations, said in an earlier statement. “As it confronts these new realities, IU remains driven by an unwavering commitment to student success and opportunity resulting from valued collaboration with our faculty and staff.”   

Here is a breakdown of Whitten’s controversial tenure as president of Indiana University. 

A controversial search process 

When an 18-person search committee was charged with selecting IU’s next president in 2020, they narrowed the list to four finalists — none of whom included Whitten. According to Steve Sanders, a Maurer School of Law professor who interviewed people involved with the search, the Board of Trustees rejected all four finalists and chose four new finalists externally, this time including Whitten.  

In September 2021, IU alerted Sanders that a law firm had requested some of his emails under the Access to Public Records Act. The action received condemnation from the Academic Freedom Alliance, which wrote a letter to Whitten in November 2021. Sanders later discovered the firm had been hired by former IU General Counsel Jacqueline Simmons, who reached an agreement with IU in December 2021 to retire instead of being terminated. 

In a 2022 opinion, Public Access Counselor Luke Britt determined the IU Board of Trustees violated Indiana’s Open Door Law by approving a six-month extension of former president Michael McRobbie’s contract while they continued their presidential search in an executive session. Britt said the contract extension, which included an additional pay of $582,722, should have taken place during a public meeting. 

The graduate workers strike 

In the spring of 2022, graduate workers at IU went on strike to demand better pay and recognition of their union from the university. The IU administration refused to recognize the union but increased the minimum graduate worker stipend by 46% in the summer of 2022. The decision raised the minimum stipend to $22,000 and eliminated mandatory graduate worker fees, bringing IU from the bottom half of Big Ten universities for graduate worker pay to above average pay at the time. 

Though the graduate workers were successful in increasing their pay, they faced several roadblocks in organizing their strike. In an email to faculty April 2022, the provost was clear about the consequences of striking. 

“Participation in a work stoppage,” Shrivastav wrote, “will result in non-reappointment to future Student Academic Appointments.” 

Graduate workers have not stopped organizing, however, demanding union recognition and a guaranteed living wage. A living wage for an adult with no children in Bloomington is $41,433 according to MIT. 

In February 2024, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition voted no confidence in Whitten and passed the resolution with 98% of the vote. On March 1, Graduate Student and Professional Government passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in Whitten’s administration, joining eight other graduate student associations. According to the IGWC website, this includes departments such as History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, Germanic Studies, Religious Studies, Sociology, History, the Media School, Political Science and Philosophy. 

“Graduate students on our campus have lost all confidence in this administration,” Sam Smucker, chair of the Media School’s GSA, said in the IGWC article. “Their disdain for the opinions of faculty and graduate students is palpable. The recent attack on tenure, the backbone of academic freedom, should have resulted in a considerable mobilization of resources at all levels to stop it. The minimal response from the administration is alarming to us all.” 

When the Indiana General Assembly was deliberating Senate Bill 202, a bill tightening legislative oversight of education, Whitten released a statement in opposition to the bill. 

“While we are still analyzing the broad potential impacts of SB 202, 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,” she wrote in the statement. 

Governor Eric Holcomb signed the bill March 13.  

Criticism of IU’s response to political attacks 

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but before Indiana banned abortion with few exceptions, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an obstetrician and gynecologist with IU Health and IU School of Medicine faculty member, performed an abortion on a 10-year-old from Ohio. The 10-year-old became pregnant after she was raped and sought an abortion in Indiana after Ohio criminalized the procedure. IndyStar published the story in July 2022, prompting Indiana Attorney Genral Todd Rokita to go on Fox News to accuse Bernard of being an “abortion activist” with a history of failing to report procedures. 

Whitten issued a statement several weeks after Rokita’s comments but was criticized for not releasing a stronger defense of Bernard.  

“Dr. Bernard has always demonstrated concern for the well-being of her patients and the education of her students,” she said. “It’s what makes her a well-respected doctor, researcher and educator.” 

In an August 2022 guest column for the Herald-Times, IU graduate student Chelsea Brinda, criticized Whitten’s statement on Bernard for failing to “address the vitriol and abuse that Bernard experienced at the hand of Rokita.” Brinda wrote that Whitten was “not a champion for women” despite being the university’s first female president, citing a lack of response to sexual assault cases and the graduate workers’ strike. IU political science professor Jeffrey Isaac also questioned the administration’s handling of the controversy in an IndyStar op-ed.  

The Indiana Medical Licensing Board fined and reprimanded Bernard in May 2023, finding Bernard violated privacy laws by speaking with the IndyStar. The Indiana Supreme Court separately reprimanded Rokita for his comments in November 2023. 

Bernard did not respond to a request for comment for her perspective on IU’s response. 

The plight of the Kinsey Institute 

When the Indiana General Assembly passed a budget that prohibited the flow of state dollars to the Kinsey Institute, a leading sex and gender research institute, IU initially appeared poised to create a separate nonprofit that would administer some of the institute’s functions to comply with the law. 

Kinsey staff said they were informed of the plan just two weeks before it was brought in front of the Board of Trustees at their November 2023 meeting. The proposal generated massive backlash from faculty and staff who feared the change would jeopardize the integrity of the institute's collections and bring unwanted changes for students and staff.  

The board tabled the issue and ultimately decided against the proposal at a meeting in late February, instead opting for an accounting solution to comply with the law. 

Suspensions and cancellations 

In the span of one week over IU’s winter break, the university suspended a tenured professor who also served as the faculty adviser for the Palestine Solidarity Committee and cancelled the art exhibition of a Palestinian painter and alumna after three years of planning.  

Security concerns were cited in both cases, though the university did not provide specifics. Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Carrie Docherty wrote in professor Abdulkader Sinno’s suspension letter than Sinno had violated university policy by representing a PSC event as an academic event on a room reservation form. Madison Gordon, the niece of Palestinian painter Samia Halaby, said Eskenazi Museum of Art director David Brenneman told Halaby her pro-Palestine social media posts were a factor in the decision to cancel the exhibit. Provost Shrivastav said at a BFC meeting in February that Halaby’s exhibit would be a “potential lightning rod” given the charged campus environment.  

“I will tell you from my perspective if I have to make a decision on keeping a project, a program going when there is a risk of violence or a risk of other incidents, I would err on the side of caution,” Shrivastav said at the meeting. 

Faculty and students protested the decisions at the start of the spring semester, alleging IU was trying to silence pro-Palestine voices.  

In a March 28 opinion, the IU Faculty Board of Review determined the university violated IU policy when they suspended Sinno without first consulting the Faculty Misconduct Review Committee. Though Shrivastav implied he would implement the board’s nonbinding recommendation at the February BFC meeting, he declined to comment on the matter at a BFC meeting April 2.  

As of April 10, Sinno’s emails to the provost asking if he would accept the FBR’s recommendation have gone unanswered.  

In the same opinion, the FBR also noted Docherty’s attempt to provide the board with a “confidential dossier” on Sinno. The board asked her to provide the same information to Sinno, but she refused, leading the board to leave the dossier out of consideration and conclude that Docherty’s attempt had been an additional policy violation.  

The decisions came after Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana sent a critical letter to Whitten on Nov. 15.  

“As a lawmaker, I would note that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits anti-Jewish and antisemitic discrimination,” Banks wrote. “If IU administrators condone or tolerate campus antisemitism, the university could lose access to federal funding.” 

In her response, Whitten wrote IU had increased security for Jewish students after the Hamas led Oct. 7 attack on Israel and described communication and partnerships with organizations like the Israel on Campus Coalition and the Anti-Defamation League.

Why no confidence votes matter 

No confidence votes have become more prominent and frequent in the past 10-15 years, Sean McKinniss, a scholar with a PhD in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State University, said. 

“I think there are a lot of pressures on higher education right now,” he said.  

McKinniss, who tracks no confidence votes through his online database, said these pressures include declining enrollments, decreased fundraising and decreased appropriations from state legislatures. The college presidency itself has also changed. Administrators who used to stay in the position for a decade or more are now leaving after around five years, he said, impacting finances and faculty relationships.  

“Faculty in particular feel as if they are not heard or not respected or left out of important decision-making, and that’s a problem,” he said.  

Around 100 years ago, college presidents used to come from faculty positions, McKinniss said, but now it’s more common for administrators to come from other administrative roles at different universities. This can also be problematic for faculty, McKinniss said, as a sense of place and culture is meaningful. 

McKinniss also cautioned those who are quick to dismiss faculty concerns. Faculty perceptions are still important to consider even if the administration feels like it’s done everything right.  

“If the faculty feel like that’s not the case, then that’s a serious problem,” he said. “That’s a communication disconnect.” 

McKinniss said around half of leaders leave a university within a year of the vote, but no confidence votes almost never result in an immediate leadership change. 

Receiving a vote of no confidence from even a small percentage of total faculty is still damning, Mckinniss said. It’s a sign of serious trouble that warrants better communication and understanding between faculty and administrators, he said. 

“A vote is not a temper tantrum,” he said.  

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