Party politics not OK in class
May 12, 2011
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In the months of political drama that followed the announcement of the Budget Repair Bill, UW-Eau Claire Provost Patricia Klein said the university had to send out a few more reminders than usual to professors about political expression in the classroom.
“The biggest difference for us has been that we need to send (the policy) out more often,” Klein said. “And to remind people more than in the past when it was just simply an election and we reminded everyone what was appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate.”
According to the UW System’s Guidance on Political Campaign Activities — which is sent in the reminder e-mails — faculty and staff “may not engage in political campaign activities during work time … use state resources to engage in political campaign activities at any time … and solicit contributions or services for a political purpose from other university employees while they are engaged in their official duties.”
Debate sparked after a March 7 incident in which Stephen Richards, professor of criminal justice at UW-Oshkosh, was caught on tape urging his students to sign a recall petition against Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac.
The audio recording was then broadcast on WTMJ-AM (620), a conservative radio station based out of Milwaukee.
Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells said the university took “corrective action” and declared Richards’ behavior as “inappropriate political activity,” according to a May 3 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Klein said she has not heard of any complaints at Eau Claire, but said students should contact the department chair or dean of the college if they feel a professor is violating this policy.
Thomas Kemp, associate professor of economics and former Eau Claire city councilman, said he was shocked when he heard of Richards’ actions.
“My immediate reaction was ‘What was he thinking?’” Kemp said. “It’s obviously not an appropriate action for the classroom.”
Kemp, who recently resigned from his city council position after accepting a job as senior economist in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., which starts in June, said that political discussion should be welcome in the classroom — that is, as long as it’s not abused by the instructor.
“Government (is about) getting things done. And those things are great to bring into the classroom,” he said. “(For example), there’d be some theory we’d be talking about in class, and I’d say, ‘Well, you know, when we (council) did this in reality, it played out this way, and we had to consider this, and that didn’t work, and that did work.
“That’s a far different thing from campaigning or politicking or advocating for some kind of partisan position,” he added.
Student Senator Paydon Miller agreed with Kemp, and said the degree of discussion should depend on the class.
“In a theory class, you often have to argue for things you don’t ideologically align with,” he said. “If you’re talking about things like electoral politics, I think that’s another thing, and I think there obviously is a line between directly advocating for a candidate and/or cause and facilitating free thought and free exchange of expression and having people defend their viewpoints.”
Ultimately, Kemp said Richards’ “obviously inappropriate” actions should not create a fear of political discussion in class. A distinct division exists between what is acceptable and what is not, he said, and as long as partisan politics are out of debate, government conversation should be viewed as an enrichment and integral asset to the learning environment.
“We don’t want to end up in a situation,” Kemp said, “where we have people saying that anything you say that might have any political connotation doesn’t belong in a classroom.”