ACTA in the News | Costs

Behind the vote: why faculty lost confidence in Whitten’s administration

INDIANA DAILY STUDENT   |  April 23, 2024 by Marissa Meador

At a historic IU Bloomington all-faculty meeting April 16, more than 800 faculty voted in separate motions that they had no confidence in IU President Pamela Whitten and Provost Rahul Shrivastav. Only a few hours later, the IU Board of Trustees expressed full support and confidence in Whitten in a statement. But the comments made in the meeting reveal a deep frustration from faculty in departments across the university.  

Speakers came from a diverse set of departments, spanning the humanities, sciences, law, music, informatics, education and public health. While several urged lenience for Carrie Docherty, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, as some faculty believed she was merely carrying out directives from those above her, few spoke in defense of Whitten. Faculty ultimately voted no confidence in Docherty, though it was a smaller margin than the motions against Whitten and Shrivastav.

Multiple speakers alluded to budget cuts and an overall dissatisfaction with administrative decisions. 

Maria Bucur, a history professor, read a statement on behalf of faculty who felt they were in too vulnerable of a position to speak publicly. The statement lamented a pattern of committees being created to provide faculty and staff input, only to have their recommendations ignored. It also criticized an overall lack of communication and transparency from the administration. 

Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a law professor on the Faculty Board of Review who helped write the opinion that IU had violated policy in suspending Abdulkader Sinno, said the administration does not listen to faculty opinions — a sentiment shared by multiple other speakers. 

He also said that the administration’s attempt to provide a “confidential dossier” on Sinno during the board’s review process was unlike any proceeding he’s seen in his life. The dossier contained bias incidents reported by students and alumni against Sinno, as well as emails and letters illustrating conflicts between Sinno and some faculty members and administrators since 2022, according to the FBR opinion document. 

“I can tell you as a lawyer that that violates his due process rights, and I can just tell you as a human being – that offended me that they thought that somehow we would go along and use information when he was not given the information and a chance to respond,” he said. 

A few faculty voices provided potential explanations for faculty abstentions and “no” votes. 

Richard Shiffrin, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said during the meeting that the administration deserved a chance to learn from mistakes they may have made. He said administrators should be judged in the context of the challenges they face and mentioned Whitten’s status as the first female president. The comment was rebuked later in the meeting by Stephanie Sanders, chair of the Department of Gender Studies, who called the statement sexist because it implied women should be graded on a curve. 

Bob Eno, a retired professor from the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture, said he planned to abstain from the votes. While he believed the university had committed egregious violations of shared governance between faculty and administration, he said some of the statements included in the case for no confidence were unfair and even untrue.   

In interviews with the IDS, other faculty present at the meeting expressed disappointment in Whitten’s statement and the quick affirmation and support the Board of Trustees expressed following the vote. 

In a statement, Whitten emphasized the challenges faced by higher education and pledged to weigh faculty guidance when making decisions. Her full statement can be read here.  

Provost Shrivastav also addressed the no confidence vote in a column on April 17. Shrivastav acknowledged many of the specific concerns of faculty, including a “culture of unwitting competition” that makes those in the humanities feel like priorities are shifting to STEM fields, efforts to “combine operations” across schools, departments and campuses and decisions related to “geopolitical conflicts or campus procedures.” 

“And so, to deepen confidence and shared understanding, to ensure a united path to a brighter future, we must do a better job of listening to each other and coming together collaboratively,” he wrote. 

Michael Hamburger, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said Whitten’s statement didn’t show much engagement with the issues brought up by the vote.  

“Definitely there have been sudden, unexpected and very destructive decisions made on the part of the central administration about budgeting, finance and priorities,” he said. 

But Hamburger said the way it’s been handled — which he described as “haphazard” and with limited communication — makes it worse. This harms departments’ ability to make long-term plans and contributes to a climate of distrust, he said. 

One good decision from the provost was mandating increased salaries for graduate workers, Hamburger said. But departments were left to find the money within their own budgets instead of receiving increased funding from higher ups, he said.  

Hamburger, who has been at IU for 38 years, said the tensions between administration and faculty have created a dark cloud over campus. 

“There are many times where faculty have been unhappy or disgruntled, but I have never seen this kind of pervasive unhappiness with the way this university is being administered,” he said. 

Shane Green, an anthropology professor at the meeting, said he thought Whitten’s statement was upsetting in light of no confidence votes from multiple sectors of campus.  

“It seems a little disingenuous to pretend that we’re all just a big happy family,” he said. 

He said the issue was more than just Whitten’s administration, pointing toward a deeper, structural change in the role of public education. While public education was designed to produce educated, informed citizens with knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines, he said, they now appear to focus on producing a certain type of person with more specialized skills. Declining appropriations from state legislatures and reduced enrollments while colleges provide an increasing number of amenities create a precarious financial environment, he said, which a raise in tuition rates have accompanied.  

For example, Green referenced that his undergraduate tuition at UNC Chapel Hill in 1989 was around $500 per semester, or $1,265 in 2024 dollars. UNC Chapel Hill’s current in-state tuition is $7,020 per year.  

The financial constraints on public education have accompanied a shift to a less faculty-centric university, contributing to a belief among faculty that shared governance is in jeopardy. More recent theories of higher education, supported by organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, outline a university model where trustees take a more active role in reviewing and directing the work of administrators and faculty.  

“We’ve become employees,” Green said. “We’re supposed to shut up and do our jobs.” 

In “Governance for a New Era,” a report released by ACTA in 2014, a group of trustees and administrators wrote that “trustees must regularly assess the cost/value proposition of academic and nonacademic programs in setting their goals” and encouraged a balanced approach to academic freedom, which the report said is being expanded by the American Association of University Professors, at the detriment of faculty “accountability and responsibility.” 

Green said the vote of no confidence represents the opinion of most faculty, even though only 948 of the 3,276 total voting eligible faculty attended the meeting.  

“If there was a lot of opposition for it, why didn’t they show up?” he said. 

Jack Bielasiak, a political science professor who’s been at the university for fifty years, implied when he spoke at the meeting that many faculty didn’t show up for fear of retribution.  

“Look around you. There is no junior faculty that I can spot among the 800 — because they are scared,” he said at the meeting. 

It was a concern echoed by other speakers, who claimed they had heard from many faculty who also had no confidence in the administration but didn’t want to show up for the vote.  

“And I fear for this university that I’ve devoted my life to,” Bielasiak said. “I fear that it will disintegrate to something that is invisible and incomprehensible.”

This post appeared in the Indiana State Student on April 21, 2024.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More