BLOOMINGTON—After being introduced as Indiana University’s first female president, Pamela Whitten made clear her commitments to improve diversity and inclusion, provide students with a high-quality education and nurture IU’s faculty.
Several times she spoke about the importance of ensuring “diversity, tolerant and inclusive” campuses, reflecting the call of IU’s presidential search web page that said candidates for the job must demonstrate, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
In her current post as president at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Whitten appointed a task force to address racial challenges and opportunities on campus and created the Radow Institute for Social Equity to create solutions for dealing with social justice and inequity issues.
That experience likely will be welcome news to some critics who believe IU’s numbers of Black faculty and students, in particular, are lower than they should be.
One thing Whitten didn’t emphasize was that she will be IU’s first female president. But when asked by a reporter what that distinction means to her, she said: “I am a woman of a generation who began their careers in the 1980s. This is not something women of that time saw or envisioned. We didn’t even imagine that.”
Whitten made a point of speaking directly to students, both in her public comments and when she had an opportunity to do so one-on-one Friday.
“To our students, please know that you will always be the center of our universe,” she said during a press briefing.
Whitten, who will become IU’s 19th president on July 1, said she would strive to provide all students with an education of the highest quality, help them graduate on time, keep their education affordable and offer them access to top quality living accommodations.
“I know I am coming to a special place,” Whitten said. “I am excited what we will do together to further the reputation of IU.”
In a separate interview with IBJ in Indianapolis, Whitten emphasized the importance of involving students in decision-making, whether formally, through meetings with student government and organizations or, informally. She plans to revive the lunches she held with students at Kennesaw State pre-pandemic at IU when it’s safe.
Whitten had already spoken to several students Friday, one of whom offered up a list of problems to start solving.
The student said “‘if you fix these, address these few initial things, then it’ll make a big dent right away,” Whitten said. “So I said ‘Fantastic,’ you know, ‘Email it to me.’”
Whitten, a recognized expert in telemedicine, praised IU and its reputation as a major research university, spoke highly of its health sciences and medical school – which she called the best in the country – and expressed much enthusiasm for leading the multi-campus university.
Whitten will come to IU from Georgia, where she also worked as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost from 2014-2018 at the University of Georgia. Before that, she was a dean at Michigan State University.
Though Whitten has spent the last decade of her career in higher education administration, she got her start in the nitty-gritty of academia. Whitten started at Michigan State as an assistant professor focused on telecommunications, and worked her way up to be an associate and then full professorship. She eventually became dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
Now, Whitten is set to return to the Midwest with her husband in June, ahead starting her duties at I.U.
“It kind of does feel like we’re coming home again,” Whitten said in an interview Friday.
“I’m certainly very familiar with the Midwest and Big 10 culture,” she added. “There’s a saying down in Georgia, they say, ‘People in the South are friendly, but people in the Midwest are nice. … That’s the sense I have, that in Indiana, people are good to each other, they’re compassionate.”
Though some have jokingly noted the split allegiance Whitten might have as a University of Kentucky graduate, others object more to her Michigan State ties.
Whitten, a Big 10 fan, said her loyalties now lie with the Hoosier State.
“I’ll be rooting for Indiana,” she said. “… That’s our family now.”
Whitten said she would spend the months before her move transitioning out of her role at Kennesaw State and into her new position at IU, largely by having conversations with university leadership, faculty and students, and visiting the other campuses.
“Basically, I’ve got a couple months of just needing to be quiet and listen, because I’ve got so much to learn in these in these first couple of weeks and months,” Whitten said.
That’s why, when asked what at IU she planned to tackle right away, Whitten said she needed more time.
“It’s a fair question, but I just don’t know yet,” she said. “I’ve got to have some time to really start to read and think and speak to people, to assess where there are opportunities to improve things and where there are challenges—and then really begin to make decisions about what’s urgent and needs to be addressed.”