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College faculty overwhelmingly opposed to bill seeking to end “viewpoint discrimination”

 Public testimony remained steadfast more than seven hours into a House Education Committee meeting, with dozens sharing their views on Senate Bill 202. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Students and professors who testified for more than three hours Wednesday said the legislation could “chill” free expression.

Faculty from higher education institutions across Indiana descended on the Statehouse Wednesday to speak out against a contentious bill that would increase lawmaker oversight of state colleges and universities and push speech in the classroom toward “intellectual diversity.”

Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, has called his Senate Bill 202 a “reform” effort intended to reverse “declining views” of higher education.

But dozens of opponents argued the proposed changes could harm students and professors, or would overly burden public institutions.

Testimony was heard on the bill in the House Education Committee on Wednesday. Committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said a vote on the measure is expected next week.

“At the end of the day, there is an elephant in the room that we need to address, and that’s the increasing number of students who just don’t feel like higher ed is a place for them,” Deery said, He pointed to a 2023 Gallup survey which found the percent of Republicans “with confidence in higher education” declined from 56% in 2015 to 19% in 2023. 

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 Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, laughs at a joke from a member of the public during testimony on his proposal, Senate Bill 202. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“Addressing this issue will both improve the quantity of Hoosiers that we can get enrolled in higher education,” Deery continued. “I also believe it will improve the quality of education they receive, because we all benefit — no matter your political beliefs — from being challenged and exposed to new scholarly ideas.”

Faculty, students and other campus representatives from Ball State University, Indiana University, Indiana State University, Ivy Tech Community College, Purdue University, University of Southern Indiana and Vincennes University disagreed, however. They argued the bill “would severely constrain academic freedom” and threaten schools’ ability to recruit and retain top faculty.

“SB 202 will put the state at odds with specialty accreditors and risk programs’ specialized accreditation, resulting in even greater shortages fundamental to the needs of Indiana citizens,” said Lindsey Everman, a professor at Indiana State University. “I encourage and welcome intellectual and ideological diversity in my classroom and throughout my scholarship. I work to educate students to also welcome diversity in the way they think.” 

“Effective practitioners have to embrace diversity of thought, and it is a misconception that one cannot both believe in diversity, equity and inclusion, and also offer an opportunity for free expression of faith and political ideology,” she continued. “A college classroom is meant for this kind of dialogue. And everyone — faculty and students together — grow in their critical thinking from this kind of exchange. Instead of encouraging free expression, as the bill hopes to do, the ambiguity of SB 202 will only stifle those activities that encourage critical thinking.”

Preventing faculty from imposing their views

Deery and other Republican lawmakers contend that conservative students and faculty members are increasingly ostracized at progressively liberal college and university settings — or at least perceive such shunning.

As an attempted remedy, Deery’s bill would change up institution boards of trustees by removing appointment power from alumni councils and pass it off to House and Senate Republican majority leaders — “with advice” from Democrat minority leaders. It would require boards’ existing diversity committees to consider “intellectual diversity” alongside cultural diversity in employment policies and faculty complaints.

The legislation would additionally require the committees to make recommendations promoting recruitment and retention of “underrepresented” students rather than the “minority students” specified in current law. 

The measure re-shapes tenure and promotion policies, too.

Boards of trustees would be required to prevent a faculty member from getting tenure or a promotion if the board thinks the member is “unlikely to foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity” and unlikely to offer students scholarly works from a range of “political or ideological frameworks.” Boards would also dock members considered likely to bring up personal political views unrelated to their specific field or class.

Boards would get wide latitude in making those policies. The bill says decisions would be based on past performance “or other determination by the board.”

The bill also mandates that boards conduct reviews of tenured professors every five years based on the above, as well as if faculty members “adequately” carry out academic duties and more. A fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency notes IU’s flagship campus at Bloomington alone has over 1,000 tenured faculty, meaning its board would have to conduct 200-plus reviews annually.

“One of the fundamental things that ought to happen to you as a young person in college is to be challenged by thoughts you’re not familiar with — thought you’re not comfortable with,  thought you don’t agree with,” Democrat Rep. Ed DeLaney told Deery during committee discussion, adding that his bill “will cut that down.”

“You’re requiring the professors — for example, in sociology or political science — to give a range of opinions and to be neutral,” DeLaney continued. “In effect, you are neutering your faculty. That’s what you’re trying to do.”

Deery opposed that description of his proposal and maintained that he wants to protect tenured faculty by codifying things the board can’t consider in reviews, like expressing dissent or engaging in research and public commentary, as well as criticizing institutional leadership and engaging in political activity outside teaching or mentoring duties.

Still, institutions would be required to adopt policies establishing disciplinary actions — termination, demotion, salary cuts and more — for tenured faculty members who fail those reviews.

Deery said the bill does not “mandate that any particular content be taught,” nor does it require students be exposed to “every scholarly idea” or “pseudoscience.”

“If you believe that it’s unreasonable for faculty to answer, occasionally, how they expose students to competing scholarly views, or if you believe that doing so will somehow ‘threaten’ the stature of your university, or the economic and cultural vitality of our state, or weaken the intellectual rigor of your students … then you and I have a very different definition of what it actually means to be higher in higher education,” Deery said.

“If you believe that we should not include in our definition of diversity the importance of competing ideas, along with the traditional goals of creating equal opportunity for all, then you and I also have a very different view on what diversity is, and I stand by that policy difference.”

University faculty speak out

joint statement released Monday by the Purdue-West Lafayette and Indiana University-Bloomington chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said adoption of the Senate bill “would severely damage the ability” of the two public research universities “to recruit and retain outstanding faculty, erasing the State of Indiana’s uniquely prominent national profile in higher education.”

“In its attempt to ensure that all students and faculty at state universities feel confident they can express their political and intellectual views freely — an aspiration the AAUP shares — SB 202 mandates a system of surveillance and political scrutiny that will instead stifle the free flow of ideas,” the statement said. “It requires that hiring, tenure, and promotion become subject to reviews that judge faculty based on political criteria, and that post-tenure employment be contingent on further periodic reviews. These measures would severely constrain academic freedom at our university.”

That sentiment was echoed by multiple other faculty members from public universities across Indiana who testified against the bill on Wednesday.

Mary Dankoski, who has served as faculty at IU’s medical school for 24 years, said Senate Bill 202 “is unprecedented” and will have “an enormous impact.” 

“It is a deterrent to prospective faculty from considering making Indiana their home and the place to grow their careers,” Dankoski said.

Dan Smith, a professor and dean emeritus at IU’s Kelley School of Business, noted that students in all classes already complete faculty evaluation surveys and appear content with their teachers.

“One of those questions has to do with whether the faculty member for that course creates an environment in that classroom that is conducive to engagement from all students,” Smith said. “When you look at the battery of responses, and you add them all up — the Kelley School has 10,000 students, 400 faculty — last year, the average on this composite index was a six-point-three out of seven on a seven-point scale. That’s comparable to how happy and satisfied you are with your Apple iPhone.”

College faculty emphasized, too, that within campus environments now, students have the ability to think critically and for themselves — and they actively do so.

“I think that the misconception that higher education may be indoctrinating students would be better evidenced if we had a room full of liberals as legislators,” said Everman, from ISU. “We’re not as effective as you think we are at changing the minds of our students. And that is because we are able to have a dialogue in a classroom and that the system evaluates our ability to do that.”

Capital Chronicle reporter Leslie Bonilla Muñiz contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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