Under Attack: Tenure and Academic Freedom

Photograph Source: McAnt – CC BY-SA 3.0

Indiana University President Pamela Whitten responded with confusion when asked on a Bloomington, Ind., public media radio show if she was brought to the Big 10 school to eliminate tenure.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, with a laugh. “Where did that come from?”

IU’s first woman president reacted similarly when the questioner refined his query to focus specifically on her three-year tenure as president at Kennesaw State University in Georgia from 2018-2021.

“I truly don’t have the slightest idea,” she said. “I will say there was talk in the legislature in the state of Georgia about that. … So, perhaps they’re conflating the conversation that happened amongst the general assembly in the state of Georgia.”

Whitten reassured those concerned about tenure’s fate at IU.

“That never was an issue at the University of Georgia or Kennesaw State or Michigan State, the schools I worked at,” she said. “And certainly, it is not an issue here. I will say, publicly, ‘I have no, no intent or interest in pursuing that.’”


Whitten’s tenure pledge, however, strained credulity for some in the IU community.

Ten months before Pamela Whitten arrived in Bloomington, the University System of Georgia (USG), which includes Kennesaw State, launched a controversial process that ultimately made the state system the first in the nation to gut the tenure process.

Kathy Schwaig, who was KSU provost and senior vice president for academic affairs under Whitten, chaired the Post-Tenure Review Working Group that was charged with recommending updates to the board’s 24-year-old tenure policy, “to ensure all faculty remain productive throughout their career,”  Insider Advantage reported.

The group’s recommendations, which the New York Times called “a direct challenge to the hallowed tradition of tenure,” were adopted by the USG Board of Regents in October 2021.

Two months later, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) ran an update on the matter titled University System of Georgia Eviscerates Tenure.

“In an unprecedented action, the board of regents of the University System of Georgia in October voted to adopt changes to its post-tenure review policy that make it possible to fire tenured faculty without a dismissal hearing,” the AAUP said.


In October 2021, the AAUP issued a report titled “Academic Freedom and Tenure: University System of Georgia” that charged the new policy effectively “abolished” tenure in the state’s public colleges and universities.

“It would allow any USG institution to dismiss tenured professors for ‘failing to remediate deficiencies identified through post-tenure evaluation without affording a hearing before a faculty body,’” the report began.

AAUP President Irene Mulvey called the board’s action “an attack on tenure and academic freedom.”

The report also alleged “flagrant violations of AAUP standards of academic governance,” arguing USG faculty should have played primary roles in developing any changes.

“Instead, the USG administration and governing board initiated, pushed through and imposed a new faculty evaluation policy without meaningfully involving the faculty and over the strong objections voiced by the system’s critical faculty governance bodies.”

In March, the AAUP governing council voted to censure USG.

Through their unilateral actions, Mulvey said in a March 7 article in Inside Higher Ed, the regents told the academic community that they do not view academic freedom as important for public higher education.

“The removal of protections for academic freedom will have a devastating effect on the quality of education in the USG system, and on recruitment and retention of faculty and students,” she said.

The organization called upon the USG regents to rescind the changes “so that essential academic freedom is protected.”


In their first year at IU, Whitten and IU Provost Rahul Shrivastav, who followed her from Georgia, encountered unrest and turmoil unseen on campus since the antiwar ‘60s and ‘70s, when Bloomington was known as the “Berkeley of the Midwest.”

In December 2021, five months after she arrived, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition submitted 1,584 union cards to the administration, seeking recognition as a unit of the United Electrical Workers.

The coalition represents graduate students – associate instructors, research assistants, graduate assistants and faculty assistants – who teach roughly a third of IU undergraduate classes, the vast majority in many departments.

The coalition went on strike in April for the spring semester’s last four weeks, after their demands for union recognition and increased compensation were ignored.

On May 24, the IU Faculty Council voted 1,404-509 to endorse the unionization effort and asked the IU Board of Trustees to intervene in negotiations.

A week to the day later, in a letter republished by The Bloomingtonian, the trustees rejected the council’s requests and threatened tenured faculty who support the strikers.

“Any member of the community – whether staff or tenured faculty or associate instructor – who fails to uphold their responsibilities in this regard will be subject to the consequences,” the trustees wrote.

In a coalition news release likewise posted by The Bloomingtonian, doctoral student Sam Smucker called the move a complete rejection of the shared governance system.

“The faculty have spoken,” he said. “The Board is not listening. … Right now, we don’t have any way to communicate with the Board or the IU Administration except through striking.”


In May, Shrivastav formed a task force to address the grad students’ concerns. Three months later, he and Whitten approved changes that increased their minimum stipends by 46% and waived university and program-specific fees, The Herald-Times reported on Aug. 3.

And for doing such a good job in her first year, the trustees gave Whitten a $162,500 bonus, atop her $650,000 starting salary. According to the IU salary database, her predecessor Michael McRobbie received $649,444.

IU has steadfastly refused to recognize the union and installed a security gate at Bryan House, Whitten’s historic, 1924 home in the center of campus.

The graduate workers coalition is planning a Sept. 25 vote on resuming the strike, citing future raises, protections for international students and the elimination of all fees as outstanding issues.

“Recognizing the union and entering a proper bargaining process would provide the least painful way to accomplish these goals,” doctoral student Jeff Moscaritolo wrote in an Aug. 25 op ed in The Herald-Times. “In the meantime, these overpaid IU administrators have made one thing clear: until they recognize our union, striking remains the only way to get results.”

Steven Higgs is a retired journalist and author who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School. He can be reached at BloomingtonAlternative@gmail.com.