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Indiana university faculty worry about conservatives' tenure bill

Brandon Smith
IPB News

Faculty and administrators at Indiana’s top universities are sounding the alarm about a statehouse bill that would largely eliminate tenure as it now exists.

Both sides of the debate say they’re fighting for intellectual freedom on campus.

Short sessions of the Indiana General Assembly, or off-budget years, are supposed to be rather sleepy, largely devoid of big controversial issues.

West Lafayette Republican Senator Spencer Deery apparently didn’t get the memo. His Senate Bill 202 would require tenured faculty at the state’s public universities to undergo review by trustees every five years.

Deery, a former Purdue University administrator, says those reviews are needed to weed out “dead wood” among faculty – those who aren’t doing enough research and teaching to justify their tenure.

"On one hand I am not giving trustees any powers they don't currently have. What I am giving them is a prod to use those powers. But tenure is the third rail of university politics and for them to do so would be a firestorm, just kind of like the firestorm you're seeing coming right now.

"But by telling them that they must be done every five years, I'm giving them that prod and that cover to do what we already empower them to do."

Deery says the bill is an attempt to boost college enrollment because politically conservative students have said in surveys that they don’t feel welcome to express their views at Indiana public universities.

"Conservative students are three times more likely to say that their professors discourage them from commenting in their courses, particularly the courses on historical or social or political subjects," Deery says. "The liberal students are significantly more at ease in expressing their opinions on a college campus."

But the bill has drawn opposition from faculty groups at Indiana and Purdue universities. States with Republican-dominated legislatures have increasingly been adopting such laws, which target diversity, equity and inclusion policies, and instead promote “intellectual diversity.”

Jake Mattox, an associate professor of English at Indiana University South Bend, says the intent of such bills is to bring politics into tenure reviews, since trustees are appointed by the governor.

"It claims to be only trying to ensure freedoms of expression but it's really going to do the opposite by imposing new forms of political or partisan scrutiny on what is said and done in the classroom," Mattox says. "Part of what has made the American university system, like, really respected around the world, and Indiana universities are respected around the world and around the country as well, has been that independence from partisan politics."

Mattox is president of IUSB’s American Association of University Professors chapter. The AAUP’s chapters at IU, Ball State, Indiana State and Purdue also oppose the bill.

Indiana University President Pamela Whitten also is opposed, saying in a statement that the university administration is, “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.”

The bill has cleared the Senate along party lines, with Democrats voting against it, and it cleared the House Education Committee Wednesday. It’s expected to receive a full Senate vote on Tuesday.

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).