Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 22, 2021

Law Professor Investigated Presidential Search At His University. It Said He Was Out of Line.

Chronicle of Higher Education, This Professor Investigated a Presidential Search at His University. It Said He Was Out of Line.:

Indiana University LogoSteve Sanders knows a lot of people. He’s been around Indiana University at Bloomington for decades, first as a student, then as an assistant to a series of senior administrators, finally as a law professor. He is involved in faculty governance and is active in the alumni network. As he has put it, “I am not exactly on the fringes of the university.”

When you’re in the mix, people tell you things. Immediately after IU announced Pamela Whitten last spring as its next president, rumors “started flying” that the search process had contained some “oddities,” Sanders told The Chronicle in an interview. He was interested. So he dug deeper.

Eventually he published an article on Medium about what he’d learned [‘You have no idea how strange this process has been’: The long, difficult search for IU’s 19th president]. He described a “tortuous” search that demonstrated “the problems of secrecy, and a Board of Trustees unaccustomed to working in a shared-governance process.” He pointed to documents showing the board had agreed to new compensation for the departing president behind closed doors.

He acknowledged that he was friends with an internal candidate [Provost and former Law Dean Lauren Robel], who had not been chosen, but made the case that his investigation had a legitimate public interest: “Critically examining the workings of an important public institution, so that the members of its community can then discuss and draw lessons, is valuable in its own right.”

Publicly, IU said little. In correspondence, its general counsel expressed irritation at Sanders’s conduct, saying that the professor had violated university policy by publishing what he did, and wasn’t “the crusader for public transparency that he hails himself to be.” And someone filed a public-records request to see Sanders’s emails, presumably to figure out how he knew what he knew [I’ve been looking into IU’s presidential search. Now a law firm is demanding to snoop through my email.].

The case reveals a wide gap between a faculty member’s notion of what he can probe and publicize, and the university’s much narrower idea. Administrators may want criticisms and unflattering information to be kept in house. But that’s miles away from how professors conceive their rights, and their purpose, under the principles of academic freedom.

In April trustees publicly named Whitten as the successor to Michael A. McRobbie. She’d be Indiana’s first female president. At the time she was president of Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, and had been provost and a dean at the University of Georgia and at Michigan State University, respectively. Sanders made no secret of his objection to the decision. ...

Last year an 18-member presidential-search committee, appointed by trustees and including several trustees among its members, sorted through the candidates. It eventually chose four finalists — one internal and three external, according to Sanders’s article. But instead of hiring one of those candidates, the board in February presented the committee with a list of “approximately four” new people, including Whitten, to interview. “Why none of the search committee’s finalists was chosen is a central question in this narrative, but only the trustees know the answers,” Sanders wrote. “Nothing here suggests bad motives. But what dynamics were in play?” ...

A week before Sanders published his article on the presidential search, something curious happened. He learned that a law firm had filed a public-records request with the university for any emails between Sanders and trustees or search-committee members. ...

Sanders wondered if the university, or someone affiliated with the university, was behind the request. ... Sanders asked Jacqueline Simmons, vice president and general counsel at IU, if the university was involved in the request. When she didn’t respond after a few hours, he reached out to her again. No response. He wrote up the circumstantial evidence in a draft article with the headline “I’ve been looking into IU’s presidential search. Now a law firm is demanding to snoop through my email.” — and sent it to communications-staff members at IU, asking for comment or clarification. No response. So he published it.

“Who could be behind this?” Sanders wrote. “If it is IU, it would be a stunning attempt to chill a faculty member’s First Amendment rights and intimidate him into keeping silent about things the university knows will be controversial.”

Sanders’s two articles set off alarm bells for Indiana faculty members and higher-ed observers elsewhere. The Bloomington campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors outlined its position in two statements. The professor had brought forth “serious and credible allegations” that the presidential-search process was flawed. And because IU faculty members are public employees, a public-records request for his emails is legal, but if it was facilitated by the university in any way, the chapter would consider it “a violation of academic freedom.” ...

“I understand the university is upset that I have revealed information that it might regard as embarrassing,” Sanders said. “But I also think what I’ve done is clearly protected by the First Amendment. It’s clearly protected by IU’s own academic-freedom policies, and it’s incredibly disturbing that the general counsel of a university apparently doesn’t understand that.”

The Chronicle posed questions to the university about various details of the case, including Sanders’s alleged policy violations, if he was under investigation, if IU had anything to do with the records request for his emails, and if IU wanted to address Sanders’s criticism that the general counsel does not understand free-speech or academic-freedom principles.

On Wednesday morning, Carney, the director of media relations, replied with a single statement.

“Indiana University has not interfered with Steve Sanders’s First Amendment rights or his academic freedom,” he said via email. “He continues to be free to pursue and post his work.”

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink