Indiana lawmakers join GOP-led states trying to target college tenure

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By the Associated Press

Legislators in Indiana advanced a bill Wednesday that would limit tenure at public colleges and universities, joining conservative lawmakers across the country creating state laws to influence operations on campuses they view as unfriendly or hostile to conservative students and professors.

The Indiana House committee on education approved the bill along party lines, giving it a chance of a full floor vote in the Republican-controlled chamber. The state Senate approved the bill earlier this month on party lines.

Conservative criticism of higher education has led to dozens of attempts in recent years to limit tenure and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, commonly referred to as DEI. Bills introduced in Nebraska this year, for instance, would ban DEI programs at state colleges and universities and eliminate tenure.

Indiana’s measure is less definitive. But it would establish a post-tenure review process to be conducted every five years and create a policy preventing faculty from gaining tenure or promotions if they are “unlikely to foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity within the institution.”

Opponents at colleges around the state say it would effectively do away with tenure, a coveted status ensuring employment that can only be terminated under specific circumstances. The practice has traditionally been considered as a way to protect faculty from being terminated over what they teach and research.

Indiana campuses would struggle to recruit faculty if the proposal becomes law, professors who testified against it in legislative committees have said.

“It would have a very chilling effect on teaching and research at all levels,” said Moira Marsh, a librarian at Indiana University and president of the Indiana Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

Under the bill, faculty cannot, at the threat of their tenure, “subject students to political or ideological views and opinions that are unrelated to the faculty member’s academic discipline or assigned course of instruction.”

The board of trustees, some of whom are appointed by the governor, would review professors’ tenure every five years to ensure they have promoted “intellectual diversity” and introduced students to a “variety of political or ideological frameworks.” The bill defines “intellectual diversity” as varied scholarly perspectives on “an extensive range of public policy issues.”

Republican state Sen. Spencer Deery, the bill’s author, said he wants to make college campuses more welcoming for conservative students and professors who avoid expressing their political beliefs due to a dominating liberal culture on campuses. Deery told lawmakers earlier this month that the bill does not mandate that professors promote a specific perspective but show they have made an effort to expose students to “a variety of scholarly views.”

Deery said the bill gives trustees the power to ensure how taxpayer dollars are used and called tenure a controversial subject.

“It is certainly a third rail of higher education issues,” he said.

The Indiana proposal follows a path laid by other Republicans, urged on by voters who have an increasingly negative view of colleges and universities. Pew Research polling found the share of Republicans and independent-leaning Republicans who said higher education was having a negative effect on the country grew from 37% to 59% from 2015 to 2019.

Beyond the tenure changes, Deery’s proposal would broaden diversity efforts to include differences in political opinions.

The bill would add “cultural and intellectual diversity issues” to the purview of diversity committees, offices or individuals who work on such efforts. The bill would also prohibit institutions from making promotions or admissions based on statements regarding DEI or “related topics.”

Indiana’s bill also would require that public colleges and universities establish a process to take complaints against professors accused of violating the new standards.

Marsh said that could stifle academic discussion among professors and students for fear they will be reported. She said the form would give students “an out” to complain about their professors, rather than discussing their disagreements.

“Part of an education is being exposed to things that may make you uncomfortable or that you disagree with,” she said.