Tenure bill passes House despite pushback

The Indiana House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 202 Tuesday, sending it back to the Senate with a vote of 67-30 despite resounding opposition and condemnation from academics across the state.

The bill, authored by Republican Sen. Spencer Deery, would designate boards of trustees the judges of “cultural and intellectual diversity” in public universities across the state.

Faculty members would be required to teach material “from a variety of political and ideological frameworks,” according to the bill. Those that fail to meet the standard and are found to not “foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity within the institution” could potentially have their tenure appointments restricted by their university’s boards of trustees, the bill said.

Many professors have spoken out in full force against the bill, condemning the intermingling of politics and higher education.

Harry Targ, professor emeritus of political science, said during his nearly five decades at Purdue, he witnessed an increase in “significant, positive, creative change.” But with the presence of S.B. 202, all that change would come to a “grinding halt.”

“I’m old enough to remember the McCarthy period of the 1950s and faculty were intimidated, sometimes fired for expressing controversial points of view,” Targ said. “It had the impact of limiting the kind of education that students got.”

The bill is intimidating, he said, because it is an attempt by those in positions of power to insert themselves into the educational process and “limit debate” in the classroom.

“Politicians, their allies among boards of trustees and their advisors in think tanks and political organizations, have used contemporary economic and political shocks to demand greater control over teaching and research,” Targ said in a letter to the Exponent.

Having been in classrooms where academic freedom wasn’t upheld, Targ said S.B. 202 creates an environment of fear which ultimately is a disservice to students seeking an education.

“I was a student in the '50s and early '60s and I think my vision of the world was very much constrained by (the) environment of fear that existed,” he said.

After the bill’s introduction and during its advancements through the statehouse, Purdue faculty and administration have had differing reactions.

In a University Senate meeting on Feb. 19, professors called out President Mung Chiang and Provost Patrick Wolfe’s “cowardly responses” during a discussion of the bill and their lack of a “concise response.”

Purdue’s administration has discussed goals to elevate Purdue’s prestige and standing on the national scale. But in order to do so, they must condemn bills such as S.B. 202, said Stephanie Masta, an associate professor in curriculum studies.

“The question is how does the lack of opposition to S.B. 202 contribute to our desire as an institution to be a top-five public school or the best land-grant school,” Masta said.

The bill would be a deterrent to prospective professors and faculty, which in turn, limits the academic prestige of the university, she said.

“We know in states that have passed laws like (S.B. 202) that faculty leave and that faculty do not come,” she said. “We know this, the data suggests this.”

Local representatives from the Greater Lafayette area have joined university faculty in voicing their opposition to S.B. 202.

The migration of professors and faculty out of public universities presents financial implications that cannot be understated and will have rippling effects felt across the state, Democratic State Rep. Sheila Klinker of Lafayette, said in a Tuesday press release.

“Recruitment for our universities is a difficult job since they compete with other institutions on a global scale,” Klinker said. “This bill will have a serious impact on our public universities’ ability to recruit faculty members and will cost them millions in its implementation.”

The bill seeks to push for an expansion of “intellectual diversity,” but there is a prevalent fear that the requirement for additional viewpoints would require professors to teach incorrect material.

According to a 2014 National Science Foundation survey, “26% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the Earth. If S.B. 202 is passed, will the board of trustees see to it that that point of view is represented on the faculty?” John Contreni, professor emeritus of history, said in a letter to the Exponent. “What about the notion that the Earth and everything on it was created in six days about 6,000 years ago?”

During his presentation to the House Committee on Education, Deery, one of the authors of the bill, said it doesn’t mandate research topics.

“I think you need to distinguish between the classroom and the course content and their research,” Deery said. “There is no mandate of any particular content for any course nor is there a prohibition of any particular content for any course.”

While he said the intention behind the bill is to increase academic freedom, not content regulation, many opponents argue it has the opposite effect.

“In many ways, this bill acts as the proverbial thought police,” Democratic West Lafayette Rep. Chris Campbell said in a press release following the passage of the bill in the House Chamber. “Individual faculty should be judged by the standards of their field, not by a particular student or board member who believes they fail an ideological litmus test.”

There are standards already in place to ensure intellectual diversity and academic freedom exist in all classrooms across the state and that students have the space to speak their minds, she said. The bill is an overreach of the government attempting to “solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“From the amount of correspondence I’ve received, I know S.B. 202 fails to represent the views of my constituents and the Purdue faculty,” Campbell said. “We’re proud to be a college town, and many members of our community are successful, tenured professors. They’ve worked hard for West Lafayette and for our state through their research and development, but this bill calls their dedication to their fields into question.”

Klinker, a former employee in the College of Education, said the defining members of a university are its professors who dedicate their time to serve as teachers and mentors for young students. Any legislation that would restrict their role jeopardizes the “well-being” of the institution as a whole.

“Our university’s faculty impacts our young students profoundly through their guidance, mentorship and dedication to the classroom,” she said. “I believe this legislation directly puts faculty and their positions at risk.”

The politicization of higher education in Indiana would not stop with S.B. 202, Targ says. The passage of S.B. 202 is not a one-and-done situation and may be the sign of things to come.

“It’s very possible that this is just the beginning,” Targ said. “If you look at the state of Florida and higher education, the governor and various other political influentials have been kind of clownish and buffoonish in trying to repress public education. In Indiana, I think the process has been a lot more subtle.”