Professor eMail controversy strikes higher ed once again

Conservative groups aren't happy about the way faculty members are using university-issued eMail accounts.

University of Iowa professor Ellen Lewin kept her eMail to the campus’s College Republicans short and not so sweet: “F*** YOU REPUBLICANS.” A week later, the message has prompted more questions about how–or if–faculty should use campus eMail addresses in political debates.

Lewin, a women’s studies professor at the Iowa City campus, sent her eMail to the university’s Republican student organization after the group announced its “Conservative Coming Out Week,” a four-day event that reminded right-leaning students that they were “not alone” in the university’s “liberal town.”

“Conservatives in Iowa City: it is time to come out of the closet!” said the eMail sent from the College Republicans to Iowa students.

Lewin said the College Republicans’ use of language traditionally used by marginalized groups was offensive, as first reported in The Iowa Republican.

University President Sally Mason responded with a swift rebuke of Lewin’s use of her Iowa eMail account.

“Student organizations are sometimes formed along political lines and act on their political beliefs. Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way,” Mason said in a statement. “Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior.”

Thomas Moore, a university spokesman, said Iowa wouldn’t disclose plans for disciplinary action against Lewin.

“Disciplinary matters are confidential personnel issues,” Moore said in an eMail to eCampus News. “We will not speculate about any actions the university may or may not take.”

Lewin’s eMail exchange with Iowa conservatives “reaffirm[s] the necessity of a ‘Conservative Coming Out Week’ in Iowa City,” Will Gries, a spokesman for the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, wrote in an April 23 blog post.

“The UI is not a welcome place for Republican views, especially as long as professors such as Lewin … use their university eMail accounts to send hateful messages to college students with opinions different from theirs,” Gries wrote.

Gries defended use of the term, “coming out,” saying there is “no patent placed upon the term.”

“The goal of ‘Conservative Coming Out Week’ was for Republicans to be honest with their community to who they are: Republicans,” he wrote. “I believe we accomplished just that.”

The Iowa political eMail battle comes just a month after a University of Wisconsin (UW) professor was scrutinized by conservatives in his state for using his official university eMail account to criticize new labor union laws passed by Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature.

Using Wisconsin’s Open Documents Law, conservative groups filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking eMail messages from Cronon’s UW account that mentioned key words in the labor union political fight, including “recall,” “collective bargaining,” “union,” and “rally.”

Some in higher education questioned whether the political pressure from outside groups would discourage educators from using their school eMail addresses when discussing polarizing issues.

“You might see [professors] turning to their Gmail or Yahoo! or AOL accounts for a while after this,” said a faculty member who spoke to eCampus News on the condition of anonymity.

David Halperin, director of Campus Progress, a left-leaning national organization, said using personal eMail accounts to exchange work-related ideas and theories might be the best protection for faculty members wary of political attacks.

“In a world where there’s a lot of overreaching, I think it’s probably a smart thing for professors to do,” he said. “But a better practice would be one in which they don’t have to work around the system” and resort to personal eMail accounts to avoid scrutiny.

The increased political heat on faculty members also was seen in Michigan this spring.

The Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy on March 30 filed FOIAs seeking eMail messages sent and received by faculty at Michigan State University, Michigan University, and Wayne State University.

The group’s FOIA asks for eMail messages sent by faculty and staff in the universities’ labor studies departments that include words such as “Wisconsin,” “Scott Walker”—Wisconsin’s Republican governor—and “Maddow,” presumably referring to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

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