Kinsey Institute faculty, students express confusion, concern over institute’s future 

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Indiana University faculty, staff and students who support the Kinsey Institute say a proposal to move much of the administration of the institute into a not-for-profit is rushed, unnecessary and underdeveloped.

The IU board of trustees tabled discussions on the proposal Friday morning, with administrators saying the decision gives them more time to develop the idea, work with Kinsey staff and answer a roster of unanswered questions.

Under the proposal, announced Oct. 27, some of the institute’s administrative and operating functions would be transferred to a not-for-profit, but its collections and archives would remain under university ownership. The move was proposed after state lawmakers earlier this year banned state funding from going to the internationally famous but often-scrutinized sexual research organization.

“Developed as a path to permanently protect the Kinsey Institute and its mission, the proposal we considered today would have permitted the university to create this mechanism by establishing a nonprofit entity to serve this limited purpose,” Board Chair Quinn Buckner said at Friday’s meeting. “We look forward to considering this topic again at a future meeting.”

Unanswered questions 

At an Oct. 27 meeting, Kinsey faculty and staff found out about the university’s potential plans and the trustees’ upcoming vote. Many of them said they were shocked at the idea and how quickly the proposal would be heard by trustees. Others were more unnerved that the administrators present lacked answers to their questions, which they considered fundamental.

Those questions included:

– does splitting the institute actually satisfy the requirements of the new state law?

– how would faculty appointments be managed?

– how would the university portion of the institute be branded?

– what would happen with the expansive system of donors supporting Kinsey?

A Nov. 1 letter asking the university to slow down and prevent “irreparable harm” to the institute was signed by 45 faculty and staff members who work in or with the institute. That number jumped to 67 in a Nov. 8 update.

Another faculty letter from the greater IU community included more than 320 signatures from professors, staff members, student government personnel and graduate students. Other letters obtained by Inside INdiana Business were from Concerned Scientists @ IU, a campus counseling program director and another signed by more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students.

Inside INdiana Business did not receive a comment from the university about the questions and contents included in the letter, but IU officials did release a Q&A page Nov. 6 providing clarity on topics such as faculty appointments, the Kinsey brand and the university’s intent.

“While additional details will be determined during the process of establishing the nonprofit, the new entity would provide all administrative functions as well as communications, advancement and research development functions required to foster Kinsey Institute research and education,” the university said in the Q&A.

A major factor giving Kinsey faculty pause is the fact the institute would in part be separated from its collections and artifacts—often called the heart of the institute. Its collections hold hundreds of thousands of artifacts, films, photographs, projects and other artifacts.

“Our fear is that this proposal kind of stripped the Kinsey Institute of its most valuable assets, and that would leave it really weak and vulnerable,” said Zoe Peterson, Kinsey senior scientist and director of the Sexual Assault Research Initiative.

Cynthia Graham, Kinsey senior scientist and professor, said confused is a good way to describe how Kinsey faculty feel. They see statements from IU President Pamela Whitten and university officials touting that they stand by them and their academic freedom, she said, but last week’s move didn’t reflect that sentiment.

“As a premier research institution with a 200-year legacy of impact within our state and around the world, IU is firmly committed to academic freedom,” Whitten said in a statement released after the law banning state funding for Kinsey was finalized. “The university is concerned that a provision singling out a specific research institute sets a troubling precedent with implications that could limit the ability of public colleges and universities to pursue research and scholarship that benefits people and improves lives.”

University administrators attribute their proposal to the need to follow state law. However, there are possible accounting solutions that don’t involve a split that faculty thought the university were working on, Graham said.

“It’s not at all clear that this is the only or best solution,” Peterson said. “At the very least, we’d like an opportunity to work with the administration to examine and consider alternative ways of complying with the law.”

If the not-for-profit is approved, faculty said it will be difficult to know what the future looks like for the institute. Both Peterson and Graham said they work at IU because they work for the Kinsey Institute and because of the research and prestige of the institute. Student Melissa Blundell-Osorio said the institute is the reason she is pursuing her doctorate at IU. She said she’s not alone among students who fear the university could drastically change the place where they came to study.

“You would think that the university’s first responsibility is to their students’ education,” Blundell-Osorio said. “And so, to move forward on this without being able to provide any clear information, any details, specific information about how it could potentially impact students? It just seems incredibly irresponsible.”

Legislation sparked the proposal 

The speed of the proposal is largely attributed to the need to comply with state law. The university’s move was proposed months after state lawmakers banned state funding from going to the often-scrutinized sexual research entity.

State Rep. Lorissa Sweet, R-Wabash proposed stripping state funding from the institute as an amendment to the state budget on Feb. 22. She and other lawmakers cited long-held but disputed allegations about institute founder Alfred Kinsey, his work and the institute’s research and programming. The legislation passed both chambers, and the governor signed it into law May 4.

The state does not directly allocate money to the institute but rather to the larger university. According to records, the institute was not directed money from the state’s previous two-year budget. Kinsey is primarily funded by grants, contracts and donors for its research, outreach and scholarships, but about a third comes from the university’s pocket. However, several non-state-appropriated avenues of cash exist, including reserves, endowments and tuition dollars.

The process of creating a not-for-profit often takes several months. The university said in its Q&A that state law requires it to make sure no state cash touches the institute—directly or indirectly. It is unclear whether the university is fully complying without an audit.

The institute has been the target of attacks since its inception, but Peterson said this year’s renewed outrage at conspiracies that many consider to be debunked has been intense. It affects faculty members’ ability to do research and focus on their work, which includes many topics people typically agree upon, like sexual misconduct prevention and school programming for healthy boundaries and safety.

Graham worked at Kinsey for nearly a decade in the 1990s before leaving and coming back to the place she says is the envy of those in the field. There is nowhere else like it in terms of the sheer size of the collections and scholarship being done there, she said.

Graham says she has seen the institute threatened over her time there, calling it unfortunate since much of the controversy stems from what she calls unsubstantiated claims and misinformation. Some people just believe gender and sexuality shouldn’t be studied, an outlook she said makes no sense since those topics are so interwoven throughout society.

Mounting support 

Kinsey researchers say the recent support they’ve seen is wide-reaching in their field, the local community and across the country. It’s different than the public outrage they are accustomed to; it’s largely supportive of their work.

Peterson said people have both professional reasons for pushing back on the proposal but also personal ones. Many people feel comforted and supported through the historically understudied research the institute pursues. Graham noted that people in the community she encountered, like at the grocery store or her Uber driver, would commend her and the institute for the work they do.

“It’s great,” she said. “But it makes it more puzzling about why the IU administration would want to be proposing this.”

Students protested the split at the Kinsey statue on campus last week and unrolled a scroll of taped-together pages with 8,000 signatures opposing the university’s proposal.

“There’s a lot of support for Kinsey. There’s a lot of goodwill toward Kinsey,” Blundell-Osorio said. “Because people understand the role that the Institute has played and how it has been pivotal in blazing a trail when it comes to understanding and just furthering knowledge around human sexuality.”

Outside support stems from industry colleagues such as The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and New York’s Museum of Sex.

“I am humbled by the support from our many engaged constituents in Indiana and worldwide. I also appreciate the support and commitments of IU leadership as we collaborate with faculty, staff and students to ensure the Kinsey Institute’s future at IU,” Executive Director Justin Garcia said in a Friday statement. “We remain committed to our goal of global legacy of promoting and fostering understanding of human sexuality and relationships through research excellence, public education, and stewardship of critical archives and collections.”

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