Campus politics and Purdue’s new civics graduation requirement

After 2+ years of wrangling, Purdue trustees got tired of waiting on faculty to sign off on a new civics graduation requirement. Faculty wonder: What's next?

Purdue trustees never made it a secret that they wanted the university to add a graduation requirement that, somehow, proved fresh Purdue alums were savvy at civics.

And they never made it a secret that they were antsy for a civics education test, sooner rather than later.

Since President Mitch Daniels floated the idea in January 2019, calling the nation’s lack of civics knowledge a crisis and challenging faculty to help him come up with an acceptable graduation requirement to make sure Purdue grads weren’t contributing to it, trustees pressed to get it done.

Patience, they agreed … to point.

Less than a year into it, as a team of faculty members were busy weighing the advantages of a straight, multiple-choice test versus more substantial curriculum changes, there was C’mon Moment on the board: “I hate to see us get so smart,” Malcolm DeKryger said during a September 2019 trustees meeting, “we can’t move forward.”

On Friday, more than two years later and no closer to an endorsement from the faculty-led Purdue Senate, trustees decided to move ahead – with or without the consent of faculty, generally given the courtesy under the accepted terms of what’s known as shared governance, of saying yea or nay on changes to academics, including graduation requirements.

Starting with the freshman class in fall 2021 – expected to be a record with more than 10,000 incoming students (previous record: 8,925 in fall 2020) – students will have until graduation to pass a multiple-choice test along with their choice of classes or other civics-minded tasks to get their diplomas.

Students enrolled before the coming semester are exempt from the model assembled by a team of professors and others on the West Lafayette campus.

Friday’s vote was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Trustees signaled in April they were done waiting and a vote was coming in June. The goal, as outlined in April: “To add to the educational experience of Purdue students and to produce graduates who are knowledgeable and engaged citizens.”

The fallout, though, raised in grumbling in some corners of campus: So, who’s the boss around here when it comes to academics?

Trustees: We are.

Some faculty members, not cool with trustees going ahead after the last University Senate vote in April 2020 was a solid no in a 51-28 count, were starting to reckon with what that might mean.

“With the board determining graduation requirements rather than faculty, what is to stop future boards from instituting other politically driven graduation requirements over the faculty’s objections?” a letter signed by American Association of University Professors leaders on three Purdue campuses read. (That included Alice Pawley, an associate professor of engineering education and president of the West Lafayette chapter, which had gathered some 200 letters in protest since April.)

“What is to stop the board from threatening academic freedom in more profound ways?” the AAUP leaders asked. “The board has a real opportunity to demonstrate the importance of civics literacy by following due process and established academic governance procedures in its own governance. Or they have the chance to precipitate a constitutional crisis.


“Either way, we suppose Purdue undergraduates will learn something about civics literacy.”

For the full letter: Scroll down.

The trustees responded, saying Indiana law gave them “sole, exclusive authority to ‘prescribe the curricula and courses of study offered by the … institution, and define the standards of proficiency and satisfaction within the curricula and courses established.’”

“That is the responsibility we are discharging today,” Michael Berghoff, trustees chairman, wrote in a prepared statement released after Friday’s meeting.

“Today’s board action marks the culmination of two-and-a-half years of discussion, consultation and planning,” Berghoff said. “The suggestion, made in a recent petition, of any further delay in this already lengthy process reflects neither a reasonable nor widely supported viewpoint. The petition gathered the signatures of barely 5 percent of the faculty. Nothing would be gained by yet another postponement, at the behest of such a very small, self-appointed group.”

Berghoff called it an “episode” that illuminated “another, broader issue.” Specifically, that the University Senate “has become a non-productive, ‘dysfunctional’ … organization,” as outlined by Senate leaders themselves.

“This has been evident to most observers for a very long time,” Berghoff said.

For Berghoff’s full response: See below.

Pawley said trustees were playing both sides, labeling faculty members who dissent as part of a small minority but, at the same time, discounting a vote by the full University Senate, which is designed to represent faculty across campus.

“Academics know instead of badmouthing your critics, you should take criticism, revise your paper, and you resubmit, hopefully for better luck the next time,” Pawley said. “What wasn't (a foregone conclusion) was how the Senate chair would side with the (trustees), ignoring substantial faculty dissent. That was a kick in the gut.”

Steve Beaudoin, a professor of chemical engineering and incoming chair of the University Senate, said he didn’t blame trustees for getting this one done. Beaudoin said faculty should expect that if they stall, trying to run out the clock, when Daniels and trustees come with a request.

“Two years of this – they gave us so many opportunities to contribute,” Beaudoin said. That, he said, included having a working group of faculty members refine the civics education proposal after the University Senate rejected the first version.

“We didn’t really give the trustees anything,” Beaudoin said. “We didn’t say, ‘yes.’ We didn’t say, ‘no.’ We didn’t say, ‘We like this part, we don’t like that part.’ We said nothing. We just yawned. … I think it’s completely disingenuous for the faculty, at this point, to say, ‘You never consulted us,’ when they absolutely did. Many times. … We can’t slow-walk things just because we don’t like them. If we want shared governance, we have to come to the net and work.”

Besides, Beaudoin said, he was convinced that what the working group came up as a civics education requirement with was solid, if not fully formed.


Among the criteria laid out in April, students, starting this fall, will have to pass a civic literacy test – which trustees said was “currently undergoing validation and analysis” – and take one of three paths before graduation.

Jay McCann, a Purdue political science professor, is part of a working group pulled together by the University Senate in 2019 to work on the parameters. Others included Phil VanFossen, director of the Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship at Purdue; Robert Browning, a political science professor and director of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement at Purdue; Purdue Student Government and provost’s office representatives; among others.

The group came up with a test pulled from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s national survey of civic knowledge – which leans on questions about historical dates and facts – and from the National Election Study, which deals more with current events and people. Among the questions: When was the Constitution written? Name one right in the First Amendment? Who is the current Speaker of the House?

Among the guiding principles:

  • What are civic life, politics and government?

  • What are the foundations of the American political system?

  • How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?

  • What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?

  • What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?

In an initial pilot, tested on incoming freshmen at Boiler Gold Rush orientation programs in fall 2019, 77.8 percent did well enough to get what qualified as passing scores. That compared to 36 percent of U.S. residents who passed the same tests and 53 percent of Indiana residents who had attended college who did the same.

McCann said that after subsequent testing of 355 students, the group since has developed a set of 170 items that will serve as the basis of a 50-question test that students would do on their own time. (“It wouldn’t be a controlled environment, where everyone’s in Class of ’50 (Lecture Hall) taking the test,” McCann said.) The thinking is that an 80 percent score would qualify as passing. (It takes a 60 percent score to pass the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test used in the naturalization process – a test Daniels first suggested.)

McCann said the group understood Daniels’ and the trustees’ desire to have a test of some sort. Other states, including Florida and Texas, mandate something similar, he said.

“But we wanted there to be more,” McCann said. “That’s where you get the test-plus concept.”

Some faculty continue to stew – including those from regional campuses who say they didn’t know the requirement would affect them until late in the game. (Purdue officials say regional campuses will get a version of the civics education graduation requirement, starting in fall 2022.)

“From my perspective, President Daniels wanted a civics literacy requirement, the faculty Senate voted no, and he decided to have his friends on the (board of trustees) make it happen,” Stephanie Masta, an assistant professor of curriculum studies, said. “And we have yet to see evidence that undergraduates on Purdue's campuses lack civics literacy knowledge.”

One thing they’ll pick up, if they’re paying attention: Campus politics is for real.

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Statement from the AAUP, June 10 (prior to the Purdue trustees vote):

Many faculty at Purdue are critically worried about the decision of the Purdue Board of Trustees to do two things: 1) vote to adopt an undergraduate graduation requirement without consent of the University Senate; and 2) apply it system-wide without engaging faculty at the regional campuses. 

That the graduation requirement is about civics literacy, when the Board is not following its own governance procedures, is a particularly vicious irony.

The University Senate, soundly rejected the previous version of this plan. President Daniels first introduced the idea of a civics literacy graduation requirement back in January 2019. 

The University Senate at West Lafayette took it up, holding a town hall and survey of faculty on the West Lafayette campus in spring 2019.  An associated working group produced a report by March 2020. They proposed a “test plus” requirement, where students would take a test on civics literacy (which they can repeat), plus either a 3-credit course, a set of related modules published by the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement; or participation in a set of public events. 

After debate, the University Senate voted down the proposal.  By a lot – almost two-thirds of the senators.

Perhaps daunted by this opposition, the Board and the Provost have decided to push through the newest version of the requirement without consulting us at all. Indeed the proposal is secret, for reasons that are not clear. This is ridiculous and damaging to the institution.

By all established norms and bylaws, the faculty are in charge of the curriculum and graduation requirements. This is to prevent possible political bias of politically-appointed Boards influencing what students are taught. These norms are set out in extensive documentation, including the bylaws of the Board itselfthe bylaws of the University Senate, the constitution of the regional campuses, and the authoritative statement on academic governance, the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, published by the American Association of University Professors in 1966. 

This statement was jointly formulated by the American Council on Education (ACE, of which Purdue is a member) and the Association of Governing Boards (AGB, of which the Purdue Board of Trustees is also a member), and commended to member organizations. 

In other words: we are supposed to be following this Statement.

The statement notes (with our emphasis): 

"The governing board of an institution of higher education, while maintaining a general overview, entrusts the conduct of administration to the administrative officers—the president and the deans — and the conduct of teaching and research to the faculty. The board should undertake appropriate self-limitation.”

It goes on to argue that, in areas of faculty primacy, that is, where the faculty as a body are primarily responsible, including “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process”, Boards should “concur with faculty judgement except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.”

The Board has made the argument that because they engaged with the University Senate, and because of the work of the working group in 2019-2020, they have met their obligation for shared governance.  We strongly disagree. Not only have they failed to appropriately engage the University Senate, relating to the West Lafayette campus, they are now pushing the requirement system-wide without consulting with the Senates of the system schools. 

The University Senate doesn’t govern the curriculum at Purdue-Fort Wayne or Purdue Northwest, or indeed IUPUI, according to the Purdue University code.  Regional campuses have their own constitutions and governing principles that establish that faculty on those campuses are in charge of their curriculum and graduation requirements. The regional campuses and West Lafayette campus coordinate themselves through the Intercampus Faculty Council (IFC), but this body does not have authority over curriculum on any of the campuses.

As evidenced by almost 200 letters of faculty protest sent to the Board, faculty across the Purdue system see this move by the Board to change the curriculum without consent of the respective faculties as threatening important aspects of rigorous academic life and setting a dangerous precedent.

With the Board determining graduation requirements rather than faculty, what is to stop future Boards from instituting other politically-driven graduation requirements over the faculty’s objections?  What is to stop the Board from threatening academic freedom in more profound ways?  What harm could the Board do to its relationship with the faculty bodies – across the system – moving forward and what impact will that have on all Purdue business?

Furthermore, with the civics literacy requirement imposed in this top-down manner without sufficient democratic deliberation or an affirmative vote from the representative body of the faculty, we have serious and evidence-based concerns about what this educational program will actually teach, overseen as it is by a body with seemingly no understanding of good civic behavior.

The faculty are responsible for research and teaching. The faculty has had the responsibility for directly educating the students since the founding of Purdue University. Prescribing major curricular change against the will of the faculty threatens the foundation of Purdue and all its campuses as a globally-respected educational institution.  

The Board has insisted that faculty have been involved in developing this proposal. While that is technically true, the nature of faculty involvement the Board allowed did not constitute 'meaningful participation' by faculty as defined by the AAUP. Meaningful participation by faculty in an area of primary responsibility (such as the curriculum) means faculty have power, through their representative bodies, to determine – not give input on -- policies and procedures in that area.

With our faculty colleagues, we insist that there is a distinct difference between consulting with select faculty under the pretense of a voluntary civics literacy requirement (as the Provost and Board did after the Senate voted down the working group’s proposal), and a meaningfully inclusive, deliberative, and democratic approach that involves a Senate vote and honors its outcome.

A vote is a vote. Such an approach is necessary to guarantee the long term viability, success, and integrity of changes to curricular requirements at Purdue and all its campuses, as well as demonstrating the Board’s own civic literacy on academic governance.

The Board has a real opportunity to demonstrate the importance of civics literacy by following due process and established academic governance procedures in its own governance. Or they have the chance to precipitate a constitutional crisis.  Either way, we suppose Purdue undergraduates will learn something about civics literacy.


Alice Pawley, President of AAUP-Purdue (West Lafayette), associate professor, School of Engineering Education

Noor O’Neill Borbieva, President of AAUP-Fort Wayne, Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology/Sociology

David Detmer, President of AAUP-Purdue Northwest, Professor of Philosophy Coordinator.

Trustee’s response

Trustee Chairman Michael Berghoff’s, regarding the civics literacy requirement, after the June 11 vote:

Today’s Board action marks the culmination of two and a half years of discussion, consultation and planning. The Board thanks the faculty working group that designed the new civics proficiency program and the countless faculty and staff who contributed ideas to it.

Under Indiana law, the trustees have the sole, exclusive authority to “prescribe the curricula and courses of study offered by the … institution, and define the standards of proficiency and satisfaction within the curricula and courses established …” (IC 21-41-2-1). That is the responsibility we are discharging today.

The suggestion, made in a recent petition, of any further delay in this already lengthy process reflects neither a reasonable nor widely supported viewpoint. The petition gathered the signatures of barely 5% of the faculty. Nothing would be gained by yet another postponement, at the behest of such a very small, self-appointed group.

The episode illuminates another, broader issue. As the most recent Senate Chair said to the board this spring, the University Senate has become a non-productive, “dysfunctional” in her term, organization. This has been evident to most observers for a very long time. The Past Chair is attempting to assemble ideas for some new means of receiving input from faculty and other university stakeholders, and the board wishes her and those who have joined her well in this endeavor.