Wisconsin-LaCrosse Bans Criticizing Republicans

In a grotesque violation of academic freedom, University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse Chancellor Joe Gow has banned faculty from criticizing Republican Party policies. Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography, sent an email to her students explaining that they were unable to use the Census Bureau website because of the government shutdown by “Republican/Tea-Party controlled House of Representatives.” Gow called the comment “inappropriate” and “problematic,” said it could make students “uncomfortable,” and said it was a violation of the university policy against using campus resources for political activity.

I can scarcely imagine a greater abuse of power by a chancellor than forcing a professor upon threat of punishment to apologize for speaking the truth. Gow is 100% wrong when he claims that the opinions of a professor related to a political party’s activities violate the university’s policy against using its resources for political activity. Political activity must mean actually aiding a political campaign, and “resources” must mean a real cost imposed on the university, not merely the use of university emails, computers, or facilities. Otherwise, colleges would have to prohibit the use of the words “Republicans” or “Democrats” in any emails or campus halls. Gow is perfectly free to criticize Slocum and express an incorrect opinion about the Republicans’ government shutdown. But he is not free to impose that opinion on the rest of campus. This irresponsible use of policies against political activity is a violation of academic freedom, and a very good reason to overturn such policies to prevent this abuse.

10 thoughts on “Wisconsin-LaCrosse Bans Criticizing Republicans

    • The “offending” email:

      hi everyone
      Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/tea party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government. The Census website, for example, is closed. Please do what you can on the assignment. Those parts that you’re unable to do because of the shutdown will have to wait until Congress decides we actually need a government. Please listen to the news and be prepared to turn in the assignment quickly once our nation re-opens.
      Rachel

    • Here’s what Gow wrote:

      Dear students and colleagues:
      As you may have learned from media accounts, a UW-L professor recently included a highly partisan political reference in an e-mail message sent to an on-line class:

      http://lacrossetribune.com/news/local/daily-caller-yahoo-news-call-out-uw-l-prof-for/article_f9a1b200-2fd9-11e3-aa2a-001a4bcf887a.html

      I’m writing to be sure you all know that although we proudly promote free speech and academic freedom here at UW-L, such a partisan political reference made by an instructor while teaching a class of students is problematic for two reasons. First, it doesn’t appear that by expressing her personal political views to her students the professor added anything to the educational experience in the class. And, second, there is the possibility that such a partisan reference might undermine the educational experience by creating discomfort in students who hold political views that are different from those inappropriately expressed by their instructor. The same would be true if the instructor had made a personal religious expression in class, for example.

      We therefore consider the reference in the e-mail note to be inappropriate and we apologize to the many people who have contacted me to say they were offended by it. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that a similarly inappropriate reference does not occur in the future. As I’ve said, we’re proud to promote free speech and academic freedom here at UW-L, and we also realize the responsibility our instructors have to avoid expressing their personal political views inappropriately in our classes. Thank you for your patience with this highly unusual situation.

      Sincerely,
      Joe
      Joe Gow, Chancellor
      University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

  1. Chancellor Gow asked me to post his response to my comments:

    Please note that no one has been “banned from criticizing Republican party policies.” Rather, I have noted the drawbacks of using politically partisan language in classes; in particular, these personal political expressions might inhibit, rather than encourage, discussion between instructors and students. I hope you’ll agree that we should strive to encourage debate and discussion, rather than shut it down. Please see the UW System policy about this:

    http://www.uwsa.edu/ohrwd/hr/emplrel/polactivity/

    There has been no threat of punishment and I have not, as you say, forced the professor to do anything. She is still teaching the class.

    • Here was my response to Chancellor Gow:

      I’m very pleased to read most of your comments clarifying this situation. I remain concerned, however, that you point to the policy on prohibited political activity as if free political speech were prohibited, and that you have written “We will continue to do all we can to ensure that a similarly inappropriate reference does not occur in the future.” That comment seems to go far beyond mere condemnation of a remark and suggest the potential for punishment.

      I certainly agree with you that we need to encourage debate and discussion, and the political expressions of faculty can create the danger that students may silence themselves. But it’s a danger that also occurs in the opposite direction, when administrators advise silence on political speech. I fear that faculty and students may now be silencing themselves in the classroom for fear that some comment might be interpreted as a prohibited political statement. Obviously that’s not your intent, but it is a real danger. That’s why the debate over responsible political speech in the classroom needs to be precisely that: a debate, not a dictate. And based on your response to me, I think that’s what you believe. But that’s not the impression that UW-LaCrosse faculty and students are getting.

      Personally, I think it would go a long way toward resolving this situation if you clarified all this, and if you were to say that the administration will not punish any political opinions expressed by faculty, staff, and students, and all hiring and promotion decisions are based on merit, not whether or not anyone has expressed political views, popular or unpopular. Once the threat of any punishment is removed, then it’s possible to have a truly open and free debate about the proper role of politics in the classroom.

  2. I’m sorry… “speaking the truth”? What, and whose, truth? Given he fact that one’s opinion of exactly who or what is responsible for the gov’t shutdown is highly dependent on one’s political allegiances, it would seem “problematic” to inject that type of opinion into a professional communication. I’m not sure about all the academic freedom stuff, but the “Republican/tea party controlled” language was an inappropriate (and stupid) thing to put into a class email. Should she be punished or censured? No. Should she be publically shamed in some way? Probably.

    • If your profession is talking about ideas, why is it “problematic” to inject ideas into a professional communication? Obviously, it was completely appropriate to talk about the government shutdown since it affected the class research. So why is it inappropriate (or stupid) to talk about the reasons for it? The fact that some people disagree about facts doesn’t make it “problematic” to allow such statements to be made. If some people deny global climate change, does that mean global climate change must be banned from all campus emails? What about evolution? No, the notion that a professor acts professional by shutting up about any controversial ideas strikes me as completely wrongheaded.

  3. The problem here is what the professor said is objectively true. It is just a truth that some feel uncomfortable hearing. It should be said nonetheless. Professor Kich is absolutely correct in ridiculing this action by President Gow.

    • Her comments were not objectively true or false. They were simply hers and they were partisan. Objectivity is lacking in higher education. Accordingly, it is dampening critical thinking. There is a lot of talk about diversity on campuses across the nation. Higher education institutions could really diversify if they spent more time fostering and recruiting differences of opinion instead of differences in the color of one’s skin.

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