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Indiana universities can revoke tenure if profs don't foster 'intellectual diversity'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new Indiana law allows universities to revoke a professor's tenure if they don't promote what the law calls intellectual diversity in the classroom. Supporters of the measure say they want to make universities more accepting of conservative students and academics. Many professors say the law could put their careers in jeopardy for what they say or don't say in the classroom. Ethan Sandweiss from member station WFIU reports.

ETHAN SANDWEISS, BYLINE: Tenure is supposed to mean indefinite employment for professors, where they can only be fired for cause or some extraordinary circumstance. But under Indiana's new law, a university's board of trustees can deny a professor tenure if they determine the candidate is, quote, "unlikely to foster a culture of intellectual diversity."

BEN ROBINSON: I wouldn't mince words. I'd say it ends tenure in the state of Indiana as we know it.

SANDWEISS: That's Ben Robinson, an associate professor of Germanic studies at Indiana University. He says he's worried that political appointees will interfere with tenure, which normally is handled by university departments. The law also creates a system where students and staff can submit complaints that could be considered in tenure reviews. Robinson says that'll make it harder to recruit professors to the state.

ROBINSON: If you're an academic knowing that you'll be subject to review by politically pointed legislature every five years - and in fact, the initial grant of tenure will be subject to such review - you will not choose to come to the state of Indiana.

SANDWEISS: But that's not how supporters see it. The law's author is Republican state Senator Spencer Deery, a former chief of staff for the president of Purdue University. He says the new law would help conservative students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions on campus.

SPENCER DEERY: The American public, and Hoosiers as well, are losing faith and trust in higher education. And one of the strong reasons for that is, frankly, that higher ed hasn't done a great job of making every viewpoint feel welcome.

SANDWEISS: IU's president criticized the bill, saying it would weaken intellectual rigor at the university. But Purdue University's president says the bill wouldn't change much, expressing doubt that trustees would take a heavy-handed approach. Deery argues that the law doesn't end tenure, but instead strengthens it.

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DEERY: Anybody who favors and understands the reasons why we have tenure should be supportive of that and celebrate that change.

SANDWEISS: The law does include some protections for faculty. It prevents trustees from disciplining professors for criticizing the university or engaging in public commentary. But academics say these protections are already implicit in tenure.

IRENE MULVEY: This is a big deal. This is a national thing. And I've read the bill, and it's absolutely chilling.

SANDWEISS: Irene Mulvey is president of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that advocates for the academic freedom and job security of educators. Indiana is the third state to pass a law redefining tenure in recent years.

MULVEY: We are seeing the brain drain that we predicted in Texas and Florida, and I think Indiana will follow suit there.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I would like to say just one very short thing...

SANDWEISS: The bill triggered protests on several Indiana campuses. Here's IU undergraduate student Elena Ledesma.

ELENA LEDESMA: Freedom of speech is embedded in university, and this is just undermining it to the greatest degree it can.

SANDWEISS: IU professor emeritus Russ Skiba says he worries what the new law would mean for discussions on race, gender and other sensitive topics.

RUSS SKIBA: There are a lot of people in this state that believe we need to keep moving forward towards diversity, towards justice, towards fairness. And it's time that the legislature understood that.

SANDWEISS: Republican Governor Eric Holcomb signed the bill last week. In a statement, he said he believes universities will, quote, "faithfully implement this law." Meanwhile, there are still details that need to be resolved - like, how will a handful of trustees at each university handle the reviews of thousands of professors every five years? For NPR News, I'm Ethan Sandweiss in Bloomington, Ind.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ethan Sandweiss