Is IU’s first female president a change agent?

Indiana University
IU President Pamela Whitten
IU President Pamela Whitten

Floor general Quinn Buckner said last week that rookie Indiana University President Pamela Whitten deserves a $162,500 bonus for her performance in her first year on the IU payroll, praising her communication skills, warmth and authenticity.

That’s a nice bonus for what would appear to be minimum requirements for her job, and if you add in the value of perquisites (automobile, various expenses) to her base salary of $650,000 and she’s likely in the $1 million range — tall corn in these parts.

It makes one wonder why the university pleaded poverty when graduate students approached the administration for a bump in their ramen noodle compensation and relief from burdensome fees.

And it makes one wonder just what President Whitten does, in addition to photo ops, shuffling the deck chairs and prioritizing students, whatever that means.

Here’s an educated guess. The IU President seems intent on delivering a boot heel to the face of faculty who haven’t experienced those warm, fuzzy descriptors that Buckner, the former Hoosier basketball star and current trustees president, identifies.

Trustees Chair Quinn Buckner
Trustees Chair Quinn Buckner

“This president is reviled,” James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Issac told me in an email exchange.

“Faculty feel ignored and demeaned by her leadership,” says Benjamin Robinson, president of the Bloomington chapter of the American Association of University Professors and chair of Germanic Studies.

“She just doesn’t care about faculty input,” observes another prominent professor who asks that her name be withheld out of concern about retribution.

Here’s a typical encounter with the president, who meets with her vice presidents regularly, and select groups of deans and faculty members occasionally. Usually, all invitees are assigned a seat at a table. They are told to turn off their phones, and a sealable plastic bag rests in a plastic container in front of them, so that everyone can see that everyone’s phone has been dutifully secured, like Crayons neatly placed in their boxes.

Typically, Whitten forbids people from taking notes, and when she does allow note-taking, she doesn’t allow meeting attendees to take their notes with them.

“The Queen of Mean,” as one faculty member describes her, often rips through a PowerPoint presentation at lightning speed, provides no references to where her assertions and information come from, and she doesn’t take questions.

A favorite, a-hem, exercise, is to assign each table a question to debate. Only one person can explain what was discussed to the larger group, and no feedback is given. “It feels very silly and demeaning,” Robinson says.

It’s also standard operating procedure for Whitten, whose last job was making the faculty miserable at Kennesaw State University, her first presidential appointment.

Kennesaw faculty petitioned Whitten to take layoffs off the table as funding issues threatened the Georgia university’s budget in 2020. Faculty asked for transparency in budgetary plans and say Whitten declined to respond to their concerns. Professor and union member Sara Giordano attempted to deliver a union petition to Whitten and was told the president was not in her office at the time and she didn’t respond to the petition once it was delivered, according to “KSU Campus Workers Union Petitions Whitten For A No-Layoff Pledge” in the local newspaper, the Cobb County Courier.

“. . . one of the reasons we’re out here today is to make sure she really gets it,” Giordano said. “That’s what we asked when we went up to her office was, ‘how do we get this message to her, she hasn’t been responding to us, so we don’t know how to communicate with her.’”

This is the record the IU Board of Trustees were looking at when it bypassed the recommendations of its own presidential search committee (which had former Maurer School of Law Dean and former Provost Lauren Robel at the top of its list). And when current law professor Stephen Sanders requested relevant notes and minutes from that unusual presidential search, including whether the university had violated the state’s open records law, the university hired a law firm that demanded the professor’s emails.

Moreover, vice president and corporation council Jackie Simmons found it necessary to write that “Professor Sanders is not the crusader for public transparency that he hails himself to be . . . Professor Sanders is not acting out of public interest but out of his own interest” and added that Sanders is trying “to promote himself and paint himself as some sort of muckraking journalist.”

So much for transparency, academic freedom and the prestige of “the academy,” where differing points of view are regarded with intellectual respect. But, if it means anything at all, Simmons left IU’s employ shortly after that burst of snark.

The comments of trustee Michael Mirro shed some light on all of this — the secrecy, the snide hostility toward faculty, the huge bonus that hit like a slap to the face of graduate students facing increasing costs, including university —provided housing, and compensation fueling the bottom of the Big Ten.

All of this at Indiana University, which confers more doctoral degrees annually than any school in the country.

The Bloomington Faculty Council will meet three times in September with two dates designed to be town hall meetings to gather opinion on administrative leadership. Before the university earlier this month announced a surprising increase in minimum stipends to graduate students and the waiving of certain fees, AAUP President Robinson said he was confident that Whitten was going to be on the losing end of a “no confidence” vote from the faculty.

Robinson said the compensations swayed some opinion in the conversation over the need to unionize graduate students but he and other observers say they are confident now that Whitten will be censured by the faculty.

And maybe that’s the whole point here: the trustees want a change agent who doesn’t mind being disliked. She seems to enjoy it.

“She has by far fulfilled the goals that were set forth by her and the trustees jointly,” trustee Mirro said recently. “(She’s) exceeded those goals by far.” 🐝