IU President Michael McRobbie ignored student needs.
It will cost him his legacy.
Last month, President Michael McRobbie announced his retirement, concluding his decades-long service to IU. He held key administrative roles, working his way up from the vice president of information technology in 1997 to university president in 2006. While McRobbie is hailed as a harbinger of technological innovation and international recognition, his tenure represents a history of empty promises and priorities that ignored a decaying campus life.
You would be hard-pressed to find a student or IU worker who has interacted with McRobbie personally. In stark contrast to IU’s most famous president, Herman B Wells, McRobbie’s inaccessibility and absence from IU Bloomington’s campus serve as defining features of his presidency. Certainly this context influenced McRobbie’s administrative priorities and shines much-needed light on the meaning of his legacy.
Throughout his tenure, McRobbie repeatedly refused to meet with, listen to or even acknowledge student and worker activists. Their concerns spanned a host of issues including environmental protection, racial justice and employee benefits. Their demands reflected both a lived experience at IU and a thoughtful understanding of the systems affecting our communities. McRobbie, however, routinely chose to ignore the students he served and the workers he employed
He prioritized fundraising, major construction projects and the university's reputation at the expense of students and workers. In his quest to reimagine the university, McRobbie lost sight of who he serves.
The appointment of McRobbie came in the wake of former President Adam Herbert’s resignation. Herbert was IU’s first and only Black president and a subject of criticism. While speculations of implicit racism and political maneuvering surround Herbert’s ousting, O’Neill management science professor Edwardo Rhodes said he believed Herbert was fundamentally mismatched with the unique leadership structure of IU.
“He just wasn’t as accessible as his predecessor.”
— Edwardo Rhodes, O’Neill management science professor
McRobbie, who was highly familiar with the inner workings of IU as a vice president, was welcomed as a leader who could reflect IU’s leadership structure and traditions.
Not all reactions were positive. Betsy Henke, IU student body president in 2007, told the Indiana Daily Student McRobbie missed several invitations to meet with student government and that he was “not involved enough.”
These criticisms and the context of Herbert’s resignation set high expectations for transparency and accessibility, which McRobbie failed to meet.
Early in McRobbie’s tenure, he announced he’d hold regular office hours to meet with students, likely a direct remedy to criticisms of accessibility. Unfortunately, this practice has since been discontinued, setting a precedent of empty promises that would continue throughout his tenure.
Administrators love to flaunt diversity as a checklist talking point. Throughout his tenure, McRobbie affirmed his support for diversity, equity and inclusion in a multitude of paltry statements.
One of the few actionable statements McRobbie did provide was an early promise in 2007 to double minority student enrollment by 2013. According to the university’s undergraduate enrollment data, this goal has not been met on all IU campuses, but in Bloomington it was accomplished in 2017.
By percentage, however, Black student enrollment has stagnated for more than a decade at less than 5%, and Native American enrollment has decreased from 0.3% to 0.1%. Clearly, this displays IU has not done enough to retain and recruit a diverse body of students.
Similarly, IU's faculty does not reflect much racial or ethnic diversity. While students seek to understand a multitude of perspectives, many of the university's schools fail to provide it.
As protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement proliferated across the country, McRobbie released a statement on IU’s commitment to diversity and equity. We cannot ignore the lessons drawn from studies of present-day racism and intolerance, he said.
At the very same time, McRobbie oversaw a decline in budgetary allocations for IU-Bloomington’s Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. According to IU’s official budget, the department received, on average, $1.62 million annually from 2006 to 2009. AAADS’ operating budget has decreased nearly a third since then to an average of $1.15 million from 2017 to 2020.
An institution’s budget reflects its priorities, and in this case, the university’s priorities reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of systemic racism in modern-day America. Consider that the IU Police Department’s budget jumped from $3.86 million in 2006 to $4.99 million in 2019 — an increase nearly eclipsing the whole of AAADS’ funding for 2019.
Perhaps if McRobbie listened to the concerns of students and faculty, he might have a better understanding of how this budget exhibits present-day racism.
Campus minimum wage
In 2018, McRobbie set a goal to raise the campus minimum wage from $10.15 to $15 an hour by 2020, a cogent proposal considering Bloomington is the most expensive city in Indiana to live in. Student and staff workers on our campus would benefit tremendously from such a policy.
Seasons of success
President McRobbie's June 2018 update
In recent times, we have – with the strong support of our Board of Trustees – sought to ensure that all of our faculty and staff are compensated fairly, that they receive annual pay raises where budgets allow, that they have decent and reasonable benefits, and that the lowest paid at least receive a living wage. To the latter point, "our goal is for all employees across the entire university to earn at least $15 an hour by the end of 2020, our bicentennial year.
Nevertheless, the initiative never materialized. In fact, the university took the opposite course, announcing a salary freeze following COVID-19 disruptions in the spring 2020 semester.
Yet in an act of great hypocrisy, key university administrators were given raises this summer, while graduate workers, student workers and staff were left in the dust. This isn’t even McRobbie’s first time stepping on workers during an economic crisis. Following the 2008 recession, McRobbie himself received a 21.8% raise, after asking his staff to furlough standard of living raises, sparking outrage.
“CWA 4730 is challenging both the Trustees’ and the President’s notion of decency and fairness in these tough economic times,” IU’s Communications Workers of America union said at the time.
Even if the raises today were marginal, the message is clear: the university will not stand in solidarity with its struggling workers.
An associate instructor writes open letter imploring McRobbie to protect graduate workers' interests as employees of the university.
Open letter from IU alumnus urges McRobbie to rename Wildermuth Intramural Center.
McRobbie announces he will review Wildermuth recommendation.
CWA union slams McRobbie for 21.8% pay raise amid a recession and after an email stating no such raises would occur.
Occupy Bloomington and Occupy IU protesters arrested at JP Morgan event at Kelley School of Business
Coal Free IU presents to McRobbie's office, urging the university to invest in renewable energy sources
Steph Aaronson | IDS
ReInvest IU demands McRobbie and the IU Foundation to divest from fossil fuels, marching into his office where he was “unavailable.”
ReInvest IU returns to McRobbie’s office with the same demand. Once again, he refuses to meet with them.
McRobbie announces goal of raising minimum wage to $15 by 2020, but it is currently $10.15.
Contractor dies on IU’s campus, resulting in fines for OSHA violations.
McRobbie said mold problem is under control, students disagree and wear masks in protest.
Lawyers said university isn’t contractually obligated to keep rooms clean, safe or mold-free.
Colin Kulpa | IDS
IU Graduate Workers Coalition demand end to fees and better working conditions.
Tuition and fees increase while students struggle with economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of empty promises, numerous events in McRobbie’s tenure reveal a decaying student life and disconnect between student issues and administrative priorities.
Treatment of graduate workers
From the onset of McRobbie’s presidency, graduate workers asked McRobbie what he would do to address mounting concerns among the graduate student population. Graduate workers multitask as students, teachers and researchers, all while being paid poverty wages. Many of the same concerns from 2007 persist in the treatment of graduate workers today.
In 2019, the Graduate Workers Coalition released a petition demanding an end to mandatory fees. Seeing as they are employees of the university, it is absurd they are required to pay back some of their salary to IU. Despite their tireless activism, their demands have gone unheard.
“President McRobbie has made no recognizable effort to promise and secure a living wage for graduate workers or, for that matter, even consider us a priority worth acknowledging,” said Cole Nelson, a Graduate Workers Coalition activist.
Renaming of the Wildermuth Intramural Center
A prominent recreation center on IU’s campus was named after Ora Wildermuth, a staunch segregationist and former IU donor. In 2018, the university removed his name from the building. Then in the midst of nationwide upheaval against systemic racism, IU’s administration renamed the building to honor the first Black IU basketball player Bill Garrett.
“Appropriate signage will be placed on the building to honor this great alumnus of Indiana University and one of its true courageous leaders in the integration and acceptance of African Americans in basketball,” McRobbie said in a statement.
Most students likely don’t know, though, that McRobbie knew the WIC was named after a segregationist as early as 2007. Thirteen years ago, a movement against the WIC’s namesake resulted in McRobbie declining to change the name. Terry Clapacs of the All University Committee on Naming, feared changing the name would “politicize the naming process and cover IU's history.”
While we celebrate victories for racial justice, we must remember the difficulty in achieving even the most symbolic gestures on campus.
Ignoring sustainability protests
Climate change and ecological preservation may be one of the most galvanizing topics for students. However, despite decades of student organizing, McRobbie’s administration failed to even open a dialogue with IU’s climate activists.
Exceptionally, McRobbie declined to meet with climate activists protesting coal use on-campus and, on two separate occasions, students opposing the IU Foundation’s investments in fossil fuels. Meanwhile, McRobbie sits on the foundation’s Board of Directors.
Climate protests continued into 2019, under a multitude of conservation groups. The university’s and McRobbie’s commitment to these protests’ demands is still largely unknown.
As McRobbie entered his role as Bloomington’s interim provost in 2006, he spoke of the conditions of his daughter’s dorm at IU, which he described as worse than his own dorm as a college student. This, he said, inspired him to examine the quality of IU student life.
Despite this, one of the biggest impediments to the quality of campus life has proven to be mold. Mold has been a recurring issue on campus, with multiple outbreaks in recent years.
A 2005 Mold Report by the O’Neill School identified mold as a threat to campus and stated funding stood in the way of prevention efforts. It is unclear whether the university implemented any further safeguards. IU spokesperson Chuck Carney told the IDS in 2018 too much time had passed for the report to still be relevant to the recent outbreak.
In an address in 2018, McRobbie said the university is taking care of the problem and students affected by the mold were being reimbursed. In true IU fashion, the university blamed humid summer weather and students leaving windows open while air conditioning was on for the outbreaks.
The class action lawsuit brought by students affected by the 2018 outbreak alleged the university misled students about the severity of the mold and discouraged campus health center doctors from mentioning mold as a possible cause of students’ symptoms. They also claim IU ignored the mold problem for years.
In an interesting twist to McRobbie’s supposed commitment in 2006 to improving the quality of student life, IU’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit saying the university is not contractually obligated to provide students with clean housing.
The COVID-19 pandemic
The university’s decision to invite students back to campus put faculty, workers and Bloomington residents in harm’s way. While most students likely desired a return to normal on-campus operations, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. IU and its administration no doubt recognized this but still proceeded with attempting to manage a crisis far beyond their control.
In reality, it was never feasible to assume they could pull it off without students, faculty, staff and Bloomington residents standing in the line of fire. Of course, McRobbie and the university have done everything they can to absolve themselves of responsibility and ensure they cannot be held legally liable.
On Aug. 20, McRobbie rehashed the mold playbook of blaming students. People think irresponsible students are going to force us back online, he wrote in an email. While entirely true everyone should socially distance and minimize their risk of exposure to the virus, the university is inevitably to blame for COVID-19 outbreaks in Bloomington. It is beyond illogical to believe inviting students back en masse would not result in such a scenario.
Recently, greek houses have been the focal point of the university’s ire. Instead of looking inward, perhaps to begin understanding the level of transparency required of them or their own personal responsibility for this mess, McRobbie and his administration project blame outward onto the very students they are tasked to serve. This mindset plagued the entirety of McRobbie’s tenure, and the university’s refusal to accept accountability consistently lends itself to worse decisions.
The peculiar priorities of a university president
There are legitimate arguments that McRobbie achieved success in spite of extreme difficulties. After all, the job of a university president is considerably tedious, notwithstanding the handful of unprecedented challenges McRobbie faced in his tenure. The 2008 recession, state budget changes or President Donald Trump’s higher education reforms could derail any university. McRobbie, however, tackled unfavorable odds while establishing IU as a world-class institution.
In the face of such challenges, McRobbie’s accomplishments earned him a popular reputation within the university. To name a few, he heralded major expansions in our enrollment size, networked our school internationally and launched the largest fundraising campaign in IU’s history.
Albeit beneficial, these accomplishments are the products of a president who vigorously pursued wealthy donors while prioritizing his time on marketable mega-projects. This prioritization is predictably in line with other university presidents.
But how should a president prioritize their time? IU's Board of Trustees policies outline the general responsibilities of IU’s president to “manage, and administer the University” as guided by the Trustees.
The American Council on Education provides a comprehensive perspective into how university presidents fulfill these executive duties. In their survey, they found the top five areas that occupy a president’s time are financial management, fundraising, managing a senior-level team, governing board relations and enrollment management.
Unsurprisingly, university presidents spend almost all their time on internal management, with little concern for the student or staff experience. This is a clear symptom of the higher education system becoming increasingly corporate, a phenomenon an IDS article described succinctly in 2014. James Capshew, a professor and university historian, worried the changes at the time might professionalize IU’s humanities unduly.
“If you keep cutting, cutting and cutting, you’re going to cut the heart of campus,” Capshew said in the article.
McRobbie hoped to streamline university efficiency by consolidating academic programs and cutting costs. However, the focus on efficiency came at a price as university tradition, quality of education, faculty concerns, worker dignity and student needs fell by the wayside.
The corporatized university president is arguably unrecognizable to the leadership style of former IU President Wells, whose jovial connection to the campus community is immortalized by his statue, greeting students with an open hand.
In the age of sprawling universities — strapped for cash and competing for rankings — it’s hard to come by a president willing to invest time into the constituents that need them most — their students, faculty and staff.
Ty Vinson | IDS
Choosing our next president
McRobbie established IU as a globally competitive institution. But it’s time for a change.
The people attending, working for and teaching at this university deserve a voice. McRobbie and IU have ignored them for far too long.
“We’ve done enough building, leave that alone,” Rhodes said. “It’s time to focus on the student and faculty experience on campus.”
Ultimately, our next president will be chosen by the nine members of IU’s Board of Trustees. Three members are elected by alumni, one member is a student representative and the remaining five were appointed by either Governor Eric Holcomb or former Governor and current Vice President Mike Pence.
This shouldn’t be cause for concern, as the voices of students, faculty and staff can make a significant difference in the selection of our next president. Together, we can communicate what our community wants from our next leader.
More than anything, our next president should be chosen based on their willingness to address the most salient issues our student body faces. We need a leader who can effectively act upon innovative ideas to reconnect the administration with its constituents.
Our next leader should never sacrifice our well-being to protect their bottom line. This will require them to refocus presidential priorities away from capital and toward faculty, workers and students.
At the end of the day, McRobbie’s legacy will be less about the buildings he helped erect and more about the experience students, faculty and staff had while in those buildings. Overtime, buildings lose their significance, but our most lasting legacy will be defined by the experiences of the people who came before us and those who will come after.
The institution that is President Herman B Wells was not born out of fundraising proficiency, increased efficiency or construction projects. It began with his smiling face approaching a student organization’s meeting, eager to listen and discuss. It started when he traveled the country in search of talented, new faculty members. It was born when he shook a worker’s hand and thanked them for their contribution to the university.
It is time IU’s president returns to campus so that we may all push this university forward together.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the context of James Capshew’s and Edwardo Rhodes' quotes.
Clarification: The web presentation of this opinion piece was given a Harry Potter theme to reference the series' Marauder's Map. The map could be opened by saying “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” and can be closed with the phrase “Mischief managed.”
Rebekah Amaya (she/her) is a junior studying law and public policy and critical race and ethnic study. She wants to go into immigration reform advocacy.
Allyson McBride (she/her) is a junior studying English and political science. She is the press secretary for the College Democrats at IU and copy editor for An Inkslinger's Observance.
Brian Hancock (he/him) is a senior studying law and public policy and international political economy. He is the President of the Moot Court Club.
Kyle Linder (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and international relations. He wants everyone to join a union.