January 27, 2007

Partisan Politics and the College Professor: Response to Pharyngula

English: Al Franken, Senator from Minnesota
English: Al Franken, Senator from Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As a university professor with rather strong progressive political views, I was intrigued by a recent post at Pharyngula. The post concerns the complaints of Minnesota Republicans over a University of Minnesota professor sending e-mails from her campus e-mail account to rally support for Al Franken in his possible run for the Senate. Although the professor in question included a disclaimer in her messages that her message was not endorsed by the university and that she was acting as an individual rather than a university representative, that was not enough to stop the complaints.

The primary objections to this professor's use of her university e-mail account to promote Franken were political and financial. A state employee should not be allowed to use taxpayer-supported resources to promote political candidates. At least, that appears to be the core of the complaint in this case.

Pharyngula's PZ Myers disagreed rather strongly (to put it mildly). He seems to think that the complaints are totally without merit, arguing that the professor who promoted Franken is engaged in the sort of "civic outreach we should be pleased to see in a professor." The fact that she used her university e-mail account does not bother him because she was careful to include a clear disclaimer.

I think PZ is wrong on this one. I may be progressive and quite fond of Al Franken, but I still think he's wrong about this. Sending this sort of e-mail from a university account, regardless of the disclaimer, is suspect. Given the availability of personal e-mail accounts (as noted by PZ in his post), I'm not sure why this wouldn't have been a viable alternative. I use my university e-mail for university business, and I have other personal accounts which I would use for this sort of activity.

It pains me to say this, but the Republican critics seem correct here. Partisan political activity from a university-based office funded with taxpayer dollars is probably not appropriate. PZ is correct that university professors are going to have opinions just like anyone else and should be able to express them. However, complications are raised when such opinions are expressed during work hours and via taxpayer funded equipment.

PZ says, "When I signed my contract, I don't recall one of the conditions being that my blood would be drained and replaced with some colorless, odorless, flavorless fluid that was designed to be inoffensive, nor was I told I had to be neutered to work here." He's right, but I bet his university has a policy governing appropriate use of e-mail just like mine does. I'd also be somewhat surprised if the "civic outreach" to which he refers was intended to include partisan political activity.

Regardless, I don't think anyone is telling university faculty that we must be void of any opinion. That isn't the issue here. Many of us are community activists, bloggers who deal with controversial topics, etc. We do this on our own time, but we understand why it would be inappropriate to do so on our employer's time. I certainly do not pretend that I am "an objective observer with no opinions," but I know better than to use my university e-mail account to broadcast them. I recognize that the mantle of the university carries great weight, increasing my responsibility to use it wisely.