The IU Board of Trustees said it is committed to a set of core values, which can be found on IU’s website.
Among the list: “Discovery and the search for truth.”
Maurer School of Law Professor Steve Sanders has been fighting IU for public information and demanding more accountability throughout his reporting of the university’s recent presidential search process.
In October, Sanders published an investigative article on Medium, where he alleged there were irregularities in IU’s presidential search process. Sanders also reported that IU agreed to make additional payments to former IU President Michael McRobbie.
Before publishing his reporting in late September, Sanders was alerted via email by IU’s Office of the Vice President and General Counsel that his IU email would be searched through a request from an Indiana-based law firm. According to an email Sanders received, someone was attempting to find relevant communication between Sanders and members of the search committee and the Board of Trustees regarding the presidential search process and additional payments made to former IU President Michael McRobbie past his term. Sanders didn’t know who hired the law firm to do so.
Sanders reached out to IU officials asking if they were involved in hiring the law firm. Sanders said they didn’t respond. IU spokesperson Chuck Carney didn’t respond for comment regarding the search of Sanders’s emails.
The Academic Freedom Alliance recently sent a letter to IU, expressing concern that Sanders is “being harassed for his investigation of and writing on the university’s presidential search.”
During Sanders’s reporting, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt ruled IU broke the Access to Public Records Act by taking an unreasonable amount of time to produce documents regarding McRobbie’s contract that Sanders requested.
Sanders recently submitted another complaint to Britt, contending IU broke Indiana’s Open Door Law in its ratification of McRobbie’s contract. IU sent a rebuttal to Britt contending that it didn’t break the Open Door Law. A decision is currently pending.
Carney said in an email he had no comment regarding the two complaints Sanders submitted.
The university’s motto hangs from the front of the Lilly Library on IU-Bloomington’s campus. Sculpted in stone are the words: “Lux et Veritas.”
“Light and truth.”
When Pamela Whitten was announced as IU’s new president in April, Sanders initially questioned her merits for the job and heard that there were irregularities in the process.
In a presidential search process, the search committee represents the constituents of the university such as students, faculty and staff. IU’s 18-person presidential search committee included several trustees, IU-Bloomington’s student body president, professors and other various members of the IU community. The input the committee provides to the Board of Trustees carries out the principle of shared governance — the idea that those affected by a decision will have the opportunity to provide their input, said Patrick Shoulders, who was on the Board of Trustees during Pamela Whitten’s selection process before retiring in June.
“Higher-ed, going all the way back to the University of Bologna in Italy in just after the middle ages, has a tradition of shared governance,” Shoulders said. “The faculty is responsible for what’s taught, who teaches it and who gets admitted and the academic standards.”
The extent of how transparent this process is can vary, Shoulders said.
Having a public process, where finalists are announced, presents some concerns. Those who already hold a job at another university may not want word to get out that they’re looking around somewhere else. If they don’t get the spot, their current university will know they’re shopping around, which could potentially tarnish their reputation, Shoulders said. As a result, open processes are often less likely to attract promising candidates.
The other option, which IU used in Whitten’s search, is a more nonpublic process. Shoulders said finalists aren’t announced or brought to campus for public meetings with the hope being more accomplished candidates will apply given they don’t have to worry about potential public relations complications if they don’t get the job.
Sanders said he doesn’t have a problem with IU carrying out a nonpublic search process. However, if it is a nonpublic search process, he said following the shared governance principle is necessary.
Sanders sent emails to those with knowledge of the situation, asking if they’d be willing to comment. Some politely declined. Others were willing to talk. It led to months of reporting, where he spoke to eight people who directly participated in IU’s search. All of his sources were anonymous in his published work, since Sanders said members of the search committee were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Carney didn’t comment when asked if search committee members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements.
In January, according to Sanders’s reporting, the search committee narrowed its list to four finalists, but Whitten wasn’t included. According to Sanders’s reporting, the Board of Trustees rejected all four candidates and hand-picked approximately four new external candidates to give back to the search committee for evaluation, which included Whitten.
“We got finalists and then we sort of went back to the well,” Shoulders said regarding the process. “This one was perhaps more trustee driven then the other two I was involved in.”
Sanders said this breaks the protocols of shared governance, although the process isn’t bound by law. The Board of Trustees are supposed to pick from the finalists presented by the search committee, according to shared governance norms, Sanders said.
Sanders’s reporting of the presidential search process recently raised concern to the IU-Bloomington Chapter of the American Association of University Professors regarding the alleged violation to norms of shared governance.
In March, many involved were worried about coming out of the process empty handed or having to extend it, according to Sanders’s reporting. Because of this, Sanders reported there were internal conversations between IU and McRobbie, who was supposed to retire on June 30, 2021, about an extension as IU’s president.
Ultimately, the search process ended with the selection of Whitten, who became the university’s 19th president and first female to hold the position.
Sanders also reported IU Board of Trustees agreed to pay McRobbie $582,722, to provide “consulting services” to new IU President Whitten until December 31, 2021, according to a May 13 letter. Carney confirmed in an email McRobbie was given a payment in the amount of $582,722 for six months but said it was “for contingency purposes during the course of the search for the university’s president.”
When asked for comment on Sanders’s reporting of the presidential search process, Carney said the search committee gathered input from internal and external stakeholders, including Zoom sessions open to the public. Carney said Whitten was unanimously chosen by IU’s Board of Trustees and no further information will be released beyond that Whitten has the university’s full support.
“Through this process, faculty, staff and students across the university were able to share feedback regarding the characteristics and experiences most desired in IU’s next leader,” Carney said in an email.
In the weeks leading up to publishing his reporting, Sanders couldn’t sleep. Normally, he’d roll out of bed a few minutes before his alarm rang at 7 a.m. But soon before he published, he began rising at 4:30 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. and would turn on his iPad to watch TikTok videos or respond to emails. He didn’t have worry or anxiety attacks.
“Just an awareness that I have to get up and work,” he said.
Sanders agonized about whether to publish his reporting of the presidential search process. In the back of his mind, he could already hear people doubting his intentions, asking questions like: “What’s his motive?” and “What does he want?”
He spent long nights at the law school writing, sometimes until 9 p.m., when the corridors would be mostly empty. He’d slip off across the street to a local Chinese restaurant “Chow Bar,” where he’d order General Tso’s Chicken, Beef Lo Mein or Kung Pao Shrimp. Other times, he’d be working at his home office at 8 a.m., a cup of coffee next to him, the sun peeking through the blinds, the sheet music of “The Spirit of Indiana” hanging behind him.
Sanders’s passion for journalism began at a young age. In grade school, Sanders analyzed the structure of news stories. He also read about trains and tropical fish, enjoyed collecting stamps and watched the news.
Sanders pursued a career in journalism. When he was in high school, he got a job at the Southwest News-Herald in Chicago as a reporter. He’d ride the bus to his assignments. In 1979, he covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago, and his story made the front page.
Sanders attended IU, where he worked for the Indiana Daily Student in a variety of roles–from beat reporter to opinion board. He had internships with the Knoxville News Sentinel and Chicago Tribune. Sanders also covered former IU chancellor Ken Gros Louis, who was known for his open door policy.
Gros Louis eventually became the most important mentor in Sanders’s university life. After two years in graduate school at IU, Sanders worked alongside Gros Louis at IU doing administrative work for more than a decade.
“The university is a living thing,” Sanders said of what he learned from Gros Louis. “It has a culture and a tradition and a set of values that just define it.”
Sanders took walks across campus in the fall when the leaves were changing colors. He’d pop caffeine pills to stay up all night to work on a project or study for a test. On Friday afternoons, he went to Nick’s English Hut, ordering stromboli, extra cheese, hold the pickles, and a pitcher of Molson beer.
During those years, Sanders developed an attachment to IU.
“This is where I belong,” Sanders said of being at IU. “This is where I was meant to be.”
Eventually, Sanders went on to study law at the University of Michigan. In 2009, he stood on the floor of the U.S Supreme Court and delivered an oral argument in Pottawattamie County v. McGhee.
In 2013, Sanders returned to IU as an associate professor. In 2017, he earned an IU Trustees Teaching Award. In 2020, he earned tenure. He’s on a board for a student scholarship awarding money to LGBTQ students who were disowned by their families after coming out.
Even as a professor, Sanders continued to pursue journalistic opportunities. In 2017, Sanders wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Even The Bernini of Buttercream Has to Serve Gay Couples,” which argued a baker couldn’t refuse to sell to the couple because of their sexual orientation. This August, Sanders published an article on Medium criticizing IU in what he perceived to be a shift in the university’s COVID-19 response.
“There’s a thread of seeking the truth with an abundance of fairness and clarity in what he’s addressing,” Sanders’s friend Mike Shumate said.
With some exceptions, Indiana's Access to Public Records Act requires state government information to be disclosed when requested. IU is a public institution, therefore it is required to release information in a reasonable amount of time when submitted through open records request.
When reporting on the presidential search process, Sanders said he became increasingly frustrated with how long it took IU to provide the documents revealing payments to McRobbie.
On May 27, Sanders said he submitted an open records request to IU regarding any information involving payments to McRobbie. Within two hours, Sanders said, IU responded but only sent a copy of McRobbie’s old contract. Sanders said he responded asking for the new contract. On Aug. 20, Sanders said IU provided three one-page documents with details of McRobbie’s contract.
Sanders filed a case to Britt, contending IU took an unreasonable amount of time to process his request for the documents under the Access to Public Records Act. In October, Britt sided with Sanders, saying IU violated the act.
“Simply put, Sanders had to wait too long before obtaining his copy,” Britt said in his decision.
Sanders said he also wanted to know if any public discussion of the payments to McRobbie took place as a part of Indiana’s Open Door Law.
“Any extension of public resources, including compensation to an employee or contractor, should be discussed publicly,” Britt said in an email.
Knowing this, Sanders reached out to IU Vice President and General Counsel Jackie Simmons, who said in an email to Sanders the letter confirming McRobbie’s employment extension was acted upon by the board at their August Board meeting.
The approved minutes of the Aug. 13 Board of Trustees meeting said, “The Indiana University Board of Trustees ratifies a letter sent by Chairman Michael J. Mirro and Vice Chairman Patrick A. Shoulders to President Emeritus Michael A. McRobbie appended to the August Administrative Action Report.”
But Sanders said he watched a recording of the August meeting twice and said he didn’t hear any discussion of McRobbie’s letter. Sanders said he reached out twice to Simmons to clarify her statement on the contract being discussed in an August meeting. Sanders said she did not respond.
“The trustees did vote in one fell swoop for a list of ‘action items’ but those items were not discussed or vocally detailed,” the Indiana Business Journal said in a review of the August 13 board meeting.
Carney didn’t respond when asked if public discussion of McRobbie’s contract took place during the August Board of Trustees meeting.
In October, Sanders filed another complaint to Britt, saying IU didn’t publicly discuss McRobbie’s contract and hence broke Indiana’s Open Door Law. In November, IU filed its response.
In his reporting of the presidential search process, Sanders admitted he had been a colleague and friend of former IU Provost Lauren Robel’s for more than twenty years. According to Sanders’s reporting, Robel was an initial finalist to be IU’s next president but didn’t get the job.
“Frustrated that Provost Robel was not selected, Professor Sanders began reaching out to IU’s trustees and the presidential search committee members to try to obtain confidential information about the search process and determine why Provost Robel was not selected,” IU said in its November response.
In its response, IU said Sanders violated university policies by improperly accessing information on the presidential search and disclosing to third parties without following university procedures.
IU said in the response that Sanders “is trying to use the confidential search process information that he inappropriately obtained and published in violation of IU policy, to promote himself and paint himself as some sort of muckraking journalist.”
Regarding the discussion of McRobbie’s contract, IU said the trustees don’t have enough time to discuss and vote on every contract.
On the agenda for the Dec. 3 meeting was an action item labeled “Approval of McRobbie Letter Agreement dated May 13, 2021.” Sanders said he thinks IU did this to help their case in Britt’s upcoming ruling regarding the Open Door Law. On Dec. 2, Sanders published an article on Medium titled: “IU’s trustees appear to finally own up to their violation of the Open Door Law.
A decision of whether IU broke the Open Door Law is pending.
At the IU Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 3, John Walbridge, past-president of the Bloomington Faculty Council, spoke on behalf of Marietta Simpson, president of the Bloomington Faculty Council. Walbridge said shared governance has been a topic of discussion on IU’s campus lately and mentioned there has been press regarding the presidential search process.
Walbridge said the Bloomington Faculty Council recently reaffirmed the importance of faculty members' ability to express academic freedom, first amendment rights and adherence to shared governance.
In the next two weeks, Walbridge said IU will welcome five candidates to campus for the provost opening, where shared governance will be in full effect. Faculty, students and staff can interact with candidates and provide input.
During the meeting, the Board of Trustees approved the letter to McRobbie.
Right before the end of the meeting, Trustee James Morris raised his hand, wanting to ensure everyone verbally expressed their approval of the decision.
“I would like for us to go ahead and have a voice vote on the issue of President McRobbie’s agreement,” Morris said.
Board chair Quinn Buckner agreed. He asked everyone in favor to say “aye.” It was followed by a chorus of voices. He asked everyone opposed to speak up. No one spoke.
In late September, Sanders was in his kitchen when a notification popped up on his phone. It was an email from IU’s Office of the Vice President and General Counsel.
Through a request from Indiana-based law firm Hoover Hull Turner LLP, Sanders’s university email would be searched for communication between him, the search committee and Board of Trustees regarding the presidential search process and payment to McRobbie.
“Who out there would have the resources to hire a fairly fancy law firm to do this and have the interest and know about conversations?” Sanders said. “It could be a wealthy alumnus or a member of the board of trustees. I think the university would still be complicit in that.”
On Oct. 4, Sanders published an article on Medium titled, “I’ve been looking into IU’s presidential search. Now a law firm is demanding to snoop through my email.” Sanders said he sent a draft of his story in advance to Carney. Sanders said he didn’t respond.
Sanders said he reached out to Simmons, giving her a chance to comment on whether IU hired the law firm. Sanders said she didn’t respond. Simmons didn’t respond to an interview request.
The fact his email was being searched, Sanders said, was ultimately what pushed him to publish his reporting of the presidential search process. If he didn’t hold IU accountable, Sanders said he figured nobody would. On Oct. 6, Sanders published his reporting titled “‘You have no idea how strange this process has been’: The long, difficult search for IU’s 19th president” on Medium.
“It’s healthy for people to know this, so that we can learn from it and something like it doesn’t happen again.”
— Steve Sanders, IU Maurer School of Law Professor
Sanders has recently submitted open records requests to IU in an attempt to find out who hired the law firm.
“I don't want to be critical of the trustees and the president for the sake of it,” Sanders said. “I deeply believe that people need information to make decisions.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the Access to Public Records Act.