An Open Letter to Ronald S. Rochon, President of the University of Southern Indiana

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: On February 4, 2021, the dean of the University of Southern Indiana (USI) Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education pressured two Engineering Department hiring committees to use their hiring processes to “diversify the faculty,” i.e., to engage in illegal racial discrimination. In dong so, the dean acted in direct violation of the 14th Amendment. USI President Ronald S. Rochon did not respond to our letter concerning this matter, so we now publish it here for the sake of public accountability.


Dr. Ronald S. Rochon

Office of the President University of Southern Indiana 8600 University Blvd Evansville, IN 47712

CC: Board of Trustees University of Southern Indiana 8600 University Blvd Evansville, IN 47712

Dear President Rochon,

By now you must be aware of the troubling case of the dean of the Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education at the University of Southern Indiana, who on February 4 of this year pressured two Engineering Department hiring committees to use their hiring processes to “diversify the faculty,” i.e., to engage in illegal racial discrimination. The dean acted in direct violation of the 14th Amendment, Article 1 Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution, applicable nondiscrimination laws, the USI Handbook, USI Human Resources hiring rules, and common ethical standards. The details of that pressure are recounted in the attachment, based on contemporaneous notes and recollections of Dr. Glen Kissel, Associate Professor of Engineering, and chair of one of those hiring committees. (See Attachment #1.) Dr. Kissel has filed a whistleblower complaint on this matter with the University of Southern Indiana (USI).

I write as President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in higher education. As part of our mission, we support intellectual freedom throughout North America. We have more than thirty years of experience in advocating for the principles of intellectual freedom. (For further information, please see www.nas.org.)

While it is to the credit of USI’s Human Resources Department that their training materials for hiring committees make abundantly clear that hiring committee members are not to discriminate in any fashion during the hiring process, it is disturbing that a dean would attempt to intervene before the hiring process even began to pressure hiring committees to circumvent the hiring criteria of USI’s own Human Resources Department. To this day Dr. Kissel has not received an apology from the dean for his inappropriate intervention, nor has he received any message that disavows what the dean had requested on February 4. Moreover, Dr. Kissel is not aware of any of his Engineering faculty colleagues on these hiring committees having received any communication disavowing the dean’s call to actively discriminate in the hiring process.

This case also raises serious questions about the prevalence of such pressure tactics at the University of Southern Indiana to push hiring committees and other appointing and awarding committees to “diversify” the faculty, staff, internally appointed positions, or to “diversify” student scholarships and awards. Are hiring and other committees in legal jeopardy when, as a result of pressure from above, or from constant university propaganda about “diversity,” they have used their positions to “diversify” their hiring recommendations, hiring decisions, internal appointment recommendations and student award decisions? How is it that a dean was willing to run roughshod over internal USI policy, nondiscrimination laws, and state and federal Constitutional prohibitions, to manipulate a hiring committee? Had he been pressured to “diversify” faculty and staff by higher-ups? The most recent faculty hires in the Engineering Department prior to 2021 have been disproportionately women. Were any of those hiring processes tainted by pressure to hire by gender?

Has the University of Southern Indiana conducted an internal investigation to determine whether and to what extent formal or informal actions, or explicit pressure or subtle pressure, have been applied at any point in the hiring processes for faculty and staff to hire based on race or gender in the past five years? If so, what are the results of that investigation? Could the public trust the results of that investigation?

Because the reputation of the University of Southern Indiana, a publicly funded institution, is at stake, I am calling on you to appoint an independent board. This board should investigate fully whether and to what extent pressure tactics, intimidation tactics, and formal or informal expectations in the name of “diversity” have been used to exercise undue influence on hiring, appointing and awarding decisions during the past five years at the University of Southern Indiana. To ensure this board’s independence, the USI Board of Trustees should appoint the members of the board and those board members should be independent of the university.

I note that the code word “diversity” provides no escape from what the dean or the university in general mean. It is a call for racial discrimination and is understood as such by all parties.

In the meantime, I would hope that USI would issue a statement confirming that all deans, chairs, members of the provost’s and president’s offices, and any other university faculty and staff involved in hiring, appointing and awarding processes have been clearly instructed not to use hiring, appointing and awarding processes for purposes of “diversity.” In today’s climate I am not optimistic that such a clarification would be issued or, if issued, acted upon. But it would at least be a good step in restoring the rule of law at a university where it appears that respect for the laws against discrimination are in abeyance. It should be made clear to everyone involved in these hiring, appointing and awarding processes, that nondiscrimination trumps diversity.

I write partly in the spirit of reminding you that your actions have caught the attention of academics far beyond your campus.

In my experience, college officials are often advised not to respond substantively to letters such as these. My recourse in those circumstances is to publish my letters after a due period—in this case, by May 21, 2021.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely yours,

Peter Wood
President
National Association of Scholars

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Attachment #1: Dr. Glen Kissel, Testimony

Below is a description and reflection by Dr. Glen Kissel of what happened on Thursday afternoon, February 4, 2021 during a Zoom video conference at the University of Southern Indiana.

(1) On Thursday afternoon February 4, the Dean of the Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education at the University of Southern Indiana (USI) asked those of us on two faculty search committees to use our hiring recommendations for the purpose of “diversifying the faculty.” The details I provide below will make clear that I believe I was being asked to conspire with the members of the faculty search committee to recommend the hiring of a new faculty member that is non-Caucasian. I believe such an action would be a violation of the 14th Amendment, a violation of Article 1 Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution, a violation of applicable non-discrimination laws, a violation of the USI Handbook, and unethical.

(2) I am the head of a three-member faculty search committee tasked with recommending the hiring of a new Mechanical Engineering faculty member in the Department of Engineering at the University of Southern Indiana (USI). The Chair of the Engineering Department is also a member of this search committee. Another three-member committee in the department is similarly tasked with recommending the hiring of an Electrical Engineering professor.

(3) My understanding is that the recommendation we make will be sent to the Department Chair, then to the College Dean, then to the Provost, and then to the university President for their approval. Based on my past experience, it is almost always the case that these individuals agree with the committee’s recommendation, after which Human Resources (HR) completes the needed hiring steps.

(4) A few weeks prior to February 4, we on the committees were told that the Dean wanted to speak with us about our work on these search committees. I have been on such search committees in the past, and a Dean has never asked to speak with the committees ahead of, or during, the search process. The request seemed unusual.

(5) The Zoom video-conferencing meeting with the Dean happened at 1 p.m. Thursday February 4 and included the Dean, the Chair of the Engineering Department, the three Electrical Engineering professors who form one search committee, and myself and two other Mechanical Engineering professors who form the other search committee.

(6) The Dean began by making some general remarks about the search process, saying that we needed to “choose wisely,” and then remarked that “diversity is an ongoing issue,” and noted that there were “eight white faces” on this Zoom video-conferencing call, implying that our white skin was a problem. (One of my faculty colleagues noted that he was half-Vietnamese and wondered if that “counted.”)

(7) The Dean stated that we “need to do a better job of diversifying the faculty,” and that diversity was an “institutional priority.”

(8) At some point in the conversation it was commented that demographic information is not viewable on the applications we committee members see, but that, nonetheless, we can read between the lines to figure out the demographic status of an applicant. The Dean stated that he wanted to somehow induce HR to reveal that demographic information so that it would be

(9) It became obvious to me that the intent of this meeting was for the Dean to have these committees recommend candidates for hiring that were not Caucasian. At this point I spoke up and stated that what we were being asked to do was “a violation of the 14th Amendment, a violation of Article 1 Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution, was racially discriminatory and was unethical.” The Dean, as I recall, shot back, and said that “ethnicity was important” to which I replied “No, it’s not,” to which he replied, “Yes, it is,” to which I again replied, “No, it’s not,” to which he again replied, “Yes, it is.”

(10) Note that in this response he did not deny my accusations, but simply stated that ethnicity was important.

(11) The Dean said that if I wanted to, I could file a grievance against him. He also said he wanted to speak with the Chair of the Department following this meeting.

(12) The conversation continued and the Engineering Chair noted that the department had most recently hired two women faculty members and wondered if that had sufficed. (The two women are Caucasian.) A different faculty member, who has been on such search committees in the past, chimed in that from his experience there tend to be few of the kind of applicants that the Dean was looking for. The Dean responded in such a way that it was understood he was looking for recommendations of an ethnicity other than Caucasian.

(13) The meeting took less than half an hour and the Dean ended the meeting but asked that the Chair remain on the Zoom video conference call.

(14) The above is to the best of my recollection. The precise words and order of conversation may have been different from my recollection, but they convey clearly the intent of the call. The call may have been recorded, and the Chair of the Department may have a recording of the call, because he was the one who sent out the Zoom link.

1 The USI HR website (https://www.usi.edu/hr/self-identification-faq/) makes abundantly clear that such demographic information (self- identification information) is requested only voluntarily, and very importantly states the following:

Can my self-identification information be used in making employment decision(s)?

No, the self-identification information you provide is confidential employee information and will not be used as the basis for any employment decision(s) affecting you. Your answer will not be used against you in any way.

available for those of us on the committees to see.

(15) I came away from this call believing that I was being asked to be part of a conspiracy to commit a racially discriminatory crime. I believe I was being asked to recommend a faculty candidate for hiring that was not Caucasian, and as such, I was being asked to violate the 14th Amendment, Article 1 Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution, applicable nondiscrimination laws, the USI Handbook and I was being asked to do something unethical.

(16) In some sense, this search is tainted, and, at a minimum, should the Dean no longer be in the “chain of custody” of any hiring decision from this search?

(17) What other faculty search processes at USI are, or have been tainted, by such pressure from this Dean or other Deans, or even higher-ups at the university? What other faculty hires were a result of discriminatory hiring practices? Was the hiring of women faculty members in the past couple of years in the USI Engineering Department the result of a discriminatory hiring practice?

(18) What legal jeopardy is USI being put in when a Dean meets with search committees like I have documented above to induce them to recommend that a faculty candidate not be of a certain ethnicity?

(19) I am a tenured member of the faculty, but I wonder what the non-tenured faculty members on the committees must be thinking. Will they think they are jeopardizing a future tenure decision by not complying with the Dean’s request?

(20) Was the Dean simply “following orders” from higher-ups at USI? If so, should those higher- ups be held accountable for pushing such discriminatory hiring processes?

(21) The Dean briefly mentioned in passing at the beginning of the meeting the importance of diversifying the USI student body. What message does this send to our Caucasian students? Does is it say that they are less valued because of the color of their skin?

(22) Article 1 Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution states, “The General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.” This would seem to preclude the kind of scheme the Dean was trying to induce the search committees to follow.

(23) The USI Handbook (link: https://handbook.usi.edu/) states in part: “The University of Southern Indiana reaffirms its present policy of equal employment opportunity, affirmative action and nondiscrimination with respect to recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, and treatment of persons in all organizations, services and programs under the legal control of the Trustees of the University of Southern Indiana, which shall be maintained on a nondiscriminatory basis in regard to race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy or marital status, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, or any other category protected by law or identified by the University as a protected class at all times.” Again, the language is very clear about nondiscrimination.


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Benluttrull, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, cropped.

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