Faculty

An Indiana Professor on the ‘Religious Freedom’ Law: ‘Students Are Appalled’

Indiana U.-Purdue U. at Fort Wayne

Jeannie DiClementi, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana U.-Purdue U. at Fort Wayne: “The vast majority of students are appalled at the legislation. There’s probably a small number of students who are in favor of it.”
April 01, 2015

Even as Indiana’s governor calls for "a clarification" and "a fix" for the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, higher education is bracing for the law’s fallout.

University leaders have expressed concern that the controversy over the law could dissuade prospective students from enrolling in the state's colleges. And there are fears that the law could also make it harder for universities to recruit and retain faculty members.

Supporters say the law is simply meant to protect religious liberty, but many others — in Indiana and across the country — have said it will lead to discrimination if businesses are allowed to turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender customers. Gov. Mike Pence defended the law on Tuesday, but he said that he wanted it to be clarified and changed by the end of the week.

Meantime, many organizations, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, have condemned the law and said they were rethinking future events they have planned to hold in the state. And many of Indiana’s university presidents have released statements criticizing the law and distancing their institutions from it.

Faculty members are concerned, too, particularly those who work with gay and lesbian students. One such professor is Jeannie D. DiClementi, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, known as IPFW, who is on the advisory committee of the university’s certificate program in LGBT studies. The Chronicle interviewed Ms. DiClementi about the mood on her campus amid national controversy. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for publication.

Q. This law has become the center of a national firestorm. What has it been like on the ground in Indiana, particularly in a university setting?

A. The vast majority of students are appalled at the legislation. There’s probably a small number of students who are in favor of it.

I had a student in class on Thursday, the day the governor signed it into law, who asked me: "Hypothetically, if you disagree with my religion or my lifestyle, could you refuse to teach me?" We have a really good nondiscrimination policy here, but the fact that they thought of that question is what I found to be interesting. They’re worried that this is going to be affecting their education.

There’s some companies that want to work with IPFW around creating internships for students. They’re already contacting the university because they’re concerned about what the climate is like here with our students. The questions were: Do we need to not come in and do this programming? What’s the university’s stance on this? How inclusive is your campus, and how safe is it for LGBT students? They were that clear.

Q. So this could have some unintended effects on students.

A. Yes, on opportunities for students at the university. The administration is scrambling.

Our campus has not been upfront in taking a stance against the law. IPFW did issue a kind of generic statement on Facebook.

Q. That statement isn’t as strong as some of the other ones issued by universities in the state. Were people expecting a stronger stance?

A. I think they would like to see it, but I think they recognize that we’re not going to get it because we are governed by Purdue University. Our chancellor answers to the Purdue Board of Trustees and President [Mitchell E.] Daniels, who was our Republican governor for a number of years before going to Purdue. We all know where he stands.

Q. Is anyone in the university community questioning their future in Indiana?

A. Everybody is. People are wondering if it’s time to be looking elsewhere for jobs, in other states, in other parts of the country. That’s the conversation all over town, among particular groups of people — not just LGBTQ people but also people of color, people who may not be right-wing conservative Christians. Anyone outside of that group is talking about "maybe it’s time to move."

I think potentially we could see a real brain drain if Indianapolis doesn’t do something about this and fix it. That’s going to affect our students.

Q. Several college presidents have said that many prospective students are concerned about going to school in Indiana now.

A. The university itself might be a safe place, but do people really want to come to school in Indiana? In any community in Indiana? They see our policy, and we try to say we’re inclusive and we’re safe, but then they look at the climate for the state of Indiana, and it could cancel it out.

People could decide to go elsewhere, and we could lose a lot of really good students. And we’ll lose out on a lot of really good, productive faculty members who may otherwise want to come here and work and do their research and teach the kids. I think definitely that’s in the air.

Q. What is Indiana’s social climate like for LGBT citizens? Is this law’s passage surprising?

A. The first thing I did when I was considering working here was Google Fort Wayne and look up the LGBTQ community. There’s a sizable community here. A lot of it’s hidden, but I haven’t experienced anything particularly negative in Fort Wayne, and I think a lot of people would tell you the same thing.

But the rest of the state is conservative, and I hear horror stories from students who grew up in this small town or this community, and they were bullied and they were threatened and it was an awful experience. So on one hand I’m kind of surprised; on the other hand, not so much.

Q. Governor Pence has said the law will be clarified. What are you expecting? Do you think that could be significant?

A. No, I don’t expect any kind of significance. The only way they could clarify anything is if, one, they repealed the law — that would be the preference. Second, if they’re not going to repeal the law, add specific exceptions for LGBTQ persons.

What I think they’re going to do is try to drag it out and stall it until everyone gets bored and moves on to another issue.