The Indiana state government’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has stoked national controversy and outrage since Governor Mike Pence signed it into law. Meanwhile, for university leaders in the state, it has become a public-relations nightmare.
This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.
The ramifications of the law are unclear. Advocates say it is meant to protect religious liberty, but many others have expressed concern that the law will become a tool of discrimination — a way to allow businesses to turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender customers.
Perhaps because of the lack of clarity, colleges are fielding calls from concerned prospective students and their parents. Current students and faculty members are voicing their concerns, too. University leaders have had to make a decision: Do they speak out against the law? How do they strike a balance between protecting the free exchange of ideas on their campuses and promising to be inclusive?
So far, seven institutions in the state have issued statements promising to honour their non-discrimination policies. Most, but not all, of the statements go on to condemn the law.
James M Danko, president of Butler University, became the first to weigh in. He called the law "ill conceived" and urged state leaders to "take immediate action to address the damage done by this legislation".
When the bill was passed, Danko said in an interview he did not want to get involved. But the immediate reaction to the new law, particularly from concerned prospective students, changed his plans.
"As the crescendo of noise continued to elevate," Danko said, he felt he had to speak out. "As a major employer in the city of Indianapolis, and the way that we attract people from outside the state, it was important to at least call for some common-sense approach to addressing the situation."
A few hours after his statement was released, a statement from DePauw University president, Brian W Casey, came out, although he said the timing was coincidental, while later that evening, Indiana University president, Michael A McRobbie, released a statement of his own.
"We take comfort knowing that other universities also followed suit," Danko said.
‘The tipping point’
For presidents such as Casey, the decision to speak out did not come easily. "I always think that university presidents have to be very careful speaking about current political matters," he said. "The last thing you want to do is develop official positions that stop debate on your campus. You wade into these waters only at the right time."
DePauw will soon host an event at which students can debate the merits of the law. "You want to make sure you’re providing those spaces to have those conversations," Casey said.
"We are in the business of attracting faculty and students, and if we are located in a state that does not look to be a place welcoming of all folks, that immediately hurts us [and] that’s the tipping point of the reason why you make the statement."
College presidents often shy away from taking a strong stance on social issues, let alone new laws, because they are concerned about pushback from college boards or donors, said Raymond E Crossman, president of Adler University.
Crossman, who is outspoken about many social issues, including LGBT rights, said he thought that was a mistake. In particular, higher education leaders had a responsibility to speak out on human rights issues.
"Campus communities want to see authentic leadership; I think they want their leaders to act as people," he said. "When we’re administrative robots, I think ultimately that confuses folks."
Both Danko and Casey said the reactions to their statements were mostly positive, particularly on their campuses. Students and faculty members were glad the university had said something, Casey said.
At Purdue University, the administration’s caution drew some criticism from students. The editor in chief of Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, called for the president to either condemn or support the law, but to let students know where he stands.
The president is Mitchell E Daniels, a Republican who preceded Pence as Indiana’s governor. Daniels has declined to comment on the law, citing a longstanding board of trustees policy that the university was not to take part in public debates of this nature.
But then a statement from the president’s office reiterated the university’s non-discrimination policy. "We wish to take this opportunity to affirm our unwavering commitment to our principles and our opposition to any governmental measure that would interfere with their practice on our campuses," the statement said. It stopped short of explicitly condemning the new law.
More colleges in the state might release statements about what has become a national issue, as might colleges across the country. For instance, San Francisco State University president, Leslie E Wong, announced that no university funds would be used to pay for employee or student travel to Indiana.
"It is unconscionable for this great university to spend its resources in a state that attempts to legislate discrimination of any kind," Wong said in a written statement.
In the midst of this debate, Governor Pence, a Republican, said he would support new legislation to "clarify the intent of the law”. But that might be too little, too late, college presidents said.
"The law itself is not going to have the impact that people want to believe," Danko said. "But it’s not going to make a difference. Perception becomes reality. And we really do have to be sensitive to the negative ramifications this might have."
Pence has said he would not support a repeal of the law although the president of his alma mater, Hanover College, issued one of the strongest condemnations of the governor’s stance: Sue DeWine wrote an open letter that called the consequences of the law an affront to everything the college stood for.
"I ask that Governor Pence honour the values of his alma mater," DeWine wrote. "At Hanover College we celebrate inclusion, acceptance, and openness to all persons. We do this not only because it represents the very best of what it means to be a Hoosier, but also because it is morally the right thing to do."
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters