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‘An eventful session’ — Indiana higher education officials weigh in on newly-enacted laws

College graduates put messages on their mortarboard hats during the school's graduation ceremony on May 17, 2013, University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. First lady Michelle Obama delivered the commencement speech for the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country. (Provided Photo/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (INDIANA CAPITAL CHRONICLE) — State lawmakers approved a slew of new laws affecting Indiana’s colleges and universities during the 2024 legislative session — but questions remain about how some of those measures will be implemented.

The newest provisions — including several dealing with hot-button issues — were outlined during the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s (CHE) meeting on Thursday.

Among those are laws to affect tenure and promotion requirements for college faculty, reform high school diploma requirements and expand scholarships and work-based learning opportunities for students.

It’s still not clear if Gov. Eric Holcomb will sign into law a debated bill to define and ban antisemitism on Indiana’s college campuses, though.

“This was an eventful session. I know in January I had thought — and I think we’d been told — that this would not be that eventful,” said Josh Garrison, senior associate commissioner. “But I think going forward, we will see — as higher education and K-12 and the workforce … as the lines are blurred — there will be more emphasis on the work that we do.”

Here’s a look at major bills discussed at Thursday’s meeting:

Senate Enrolled Act 202

Senate Enrolled Act 202, one of this year’s most debated higher education bills — was touted by GOP lawmakers as a way to increase “intellectual diversity” in publicly funded college classrooms.

Although faculty and students overwhelmingly contended the proposal would micromanage their institutions and have a “chilling effect” on free expression, the governor signed the bill into law on Wednesday.

Included are changes to institutions’ diversity-oriented positions and their policies for tenure, contract renewals, performance reviews and more. It also establishes new reporting and survey requirements based on “free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity.”

Garrison noted that, as part of Senate Enrolled Act 202, Indiana “is one of the few states” that now requires boards of trustees to establish diversity committees on our campuses. 

Under the new law, those diversity committees must make recommendations promoting recruitment and retention of “underrepresented” students rather than the “minority students” specified in current law.

But the commission is not releasing guidance on how Hoosier colleges and universities should handle the process, Garrison said. Rather, state institutions are given “autonomy to decide how it works best.”

In addition, since many of them already have a review process of getting there for other faculty. It’s going to be handled differently at each institution.”

Garrison said the new law also codifies tenure in Indiana code for the first time. It further outlines protections for professors to be able to “dissent, engage in political activity and other items” that were not in state law already. 

Senate Enrolled Act 202 requires a five-year review process for Hoosier education institutions, as well. Even so, “many of our institutions already have some level of review for tenure of faculty members,” Garrison said, “so this just puts a timeline on all of those.”

The law additionally requires institutions to establish complaint procedures in which school students and staff can accuse faculty members and contractors of not meeting free-expression criteria.

Institutions will have to refer those complaints to human resource professionals and supervisors “for consideration in employee reviews and tenure and promotion decisions,” according to the law. In “limited circumstances,” complaints could be advanced to the commission, Garrison said.

To avoid overwhelming its staff, CHE is allowed to contract with the Office of Administrative Law Proceedings (OALP) to handle “most of these reviews.” Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery said that small carveout in the bill was critical, given that “ours is not an agency equipped to adjudicate and arbitrate.”

OALP already handles financial aid appeals and similar reviews for CHE.

Garrison said “any of the substantive reviews” prompted by Senate Enrolled Act 202 will be forwarded to OALP once a contract is finalized in the coming months.

“We could get zero complaints. We could get 1,000 complaints on this one. So as we learn over the course of the next couple of months how this is going to go, we’ll be updating what we’re doing,” Garrison explained. “For us, there’s likely going to be frivolous ones that we’ll be able to outright say, ‘Move on down the line,’ but we are still developing the process.”

Still, commissioner member Dennis Bland questioned if the new law “is a non-entity,” or “a hailstorm in the making, for which we’re not prepared.”

Garrison said “it could really, at this point, be either. 

“We will be looking at other states,” Garrison added. “I don’t think any other state has a process quite like this, at least that we were able to find, to compare to and reach out and ask for advice on.”

CHE was additionally tasked with developing a survey and subsequent report on free speech at Hoosier campuses.

“One of the things that came out of this — and one of the things you see sometimes on college campuses — is what’s called the heckler’s veto,” Garrison said, describing situations in which students or others on a campus disagree with a visiting speaker’s message, ultimately resulting in “noise” that silences the speaker and prevents them from presenting. Senate Enrolled Act 202 requires institutions to develop a range of disciplinary actions for individuals engaging in that heckler’s veto.

“So if some group were to come in right now with noisemakers and prevent us from having this meeting, there would be some level of consequence for that,” he continued.

Senate Enrolled Act 8

Also signed into law was a broad higher education bill that seeks to make college credits and degrees easier for students to earn

Senate Enrolled Act 8 will require Indiana College Core courses to be more accessible to high schoolers across the state.

It also compels Hoosier colleges and universities, except Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University, to offer three-year degree programs by July 2025.

Garrison said 236 of Indiana’s 521 high schools currently offer the College Core. The remaining 285 must submit an implementation plan to CHE detailing a plan to do so by the 2026-2027 school year. Any schools that do not plan to offer the College Core will be required to submit a feasibility report to the commission, though it’s not yet clear what details CHE will request in that report.

“What we’re looking forward to is hearing from the schools directly on what they view the barriers are going to be offering this, in addition to what we always hear about the faculty aspect of it, which we do know is a barrier for the schools,” Garrison said.

The Indiana College Core, a block of 30 general education credits that can be transferred to and accepted at colleges across the state, is one way for students to seamlessly transfer. Through dual credit, roughly 1,800 high schoolers currently earn the Indiana College Core annually.

Senate Enrolled Act 8 also requires the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) to offer an online version of the College Core through the Indiana Course Access Program, which allows students to take courses that are taught by teachers in other districts.

Garrison said CHE plans to help IDOE offer the College Core at schools “that may not be able to staff up enough individuals.”

Further, the law requires the commission to publish a list of the College Core courses and their syllabus or course outline online.

“This will allow students, schools and families to see what the content of those courses are, and will add a level of transparency for our students,” Garrison said.

Among other provisions in the bill is the establishment of a statewide reverse transfer policy for Ivy Tech and Vincennes to award associate degrees to eligible current and former students.

The process sees associate degrees awarded to students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution prior to completing their associate degree requirements at the two-year institution. Students are able to combine the credits they earn at their four-year school with those they’d previously earned at community college or through dual credit and retroactively be awarded a degree by the two-year college.

House Enrolled Act 1001

A technical education bill that builds off last year’s sweeping work-based learning legislation will “update and improve” the state’s Career Scholarship Account (CSA), Garrison said.

Garrison said House Enrolled Act 1001 addresses “issues” that arose for first-year CSA applicants who were unable to submit necessary materials within the seven-day requirement laid out in the original law. The updated statute now gives students 30 days.

“It was unfortunate the first year, because with that seven-day deadline, hundreds of students were removed from the program,” Garrison said, noting that the next round of CSA applications is expected to go live April 15.

Additionally, the law provides clarification around how CSA funds can be used for transportation

Specifically, House Enrolled Act 1001 allows students to use up to $625 from annual CSA grants to pay for training for a driver’s license as long as the training employer matches at least half of the cost. The law specifies that grant funds can’t be used to purchase vehicles, however.

“But that also leads to a lot of questions. What can be paid for? There’s a lot of ambiguity,” Garrison said. “Can it pay for any driver’s license? Can it pay for Uber or Lyft? Bus passes? New tires if a windshield cracks — can we do that? Can a school buy a bus with it? There are a lot of questions that we face that we need some clarification on.”