2 Wins for Illinois Professors

University affirms that they can wear buttons and attend rallies, and ends talks that some feared would create the next Hoover Institution.
October 7, 2008

It's safe for University of Illinois professors to sport campaign buttons and attend political rallies on campus. The president of the university system, B. Joseph White, on Monday sent an e-mail to all employees affirming those rights and attempting to quell a debate prompted by an earlier e-mail, from the university's ethics office, that suggested that such activities were barred.

Also Monday, the university's flagship campus, at Urbana-Champaign, announced that it was calling off negotiations to create a research and education center that many professors feared would amount to a program with a single point of view and without regular academic oversight.

Buttons and Rallies

The controversy over political expression on campus stunned professors. Many colleges, especially public institutions, distribute reminders in election years about permitted and barred political activity. These policies typically bar the use of college funds for campaign activities and may direct employees to be sure that their public statements about candidates do not imply an endorsement by the institution.

At Illinois, however, a memo went out to employees at all three campuses barring employees from wearing political buttons on campus, having bumper stickers on cars parked on campus, or attending political rallies on campus. Because many professors do wear buttons and attend rallies, the policy infuriated faculty members. The American Association of University Professors condemned the limits for "their chilling effect on speech, their interference with the educational process, and their implicit castigation of normal practice during political campaigns." The rules were not enforced, but the university also declared them to be policy.

In a statement Monday, President White said that the earlier information from the ethics office was not in fact policy. In the statement, he said it was unclear whether some of the activities barred in the earlier communication were in fact banned by state law. He said that university policy would not bar attending partisan rallies on campus, wearing political buttons, or having political bumper stickers on cars. (For the rallies and buttons, he qualified the statement by saying that these activities should not take place while employees are on duty.)

White also strongly endorsed the principles of academic freedom. "We, the leadership of the University of Illinois, will preserve, protect and defend the constitutionally guaranteed rights of every member of our University community, including, of course, freedom of speech and assembly," he said. "We will also preserve, protect and defend academic freedom, which is a core value of every great academic institution."

Capitalism Academy

The other controversy at Illinois that was resolved Monday involved the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government, which was set up with funds from alumni with the goal of promoting the study of free markets and principles of Western civilization -- and which will now operate but not as part of the university.

In recent years, alumni of a number of colleges and universities have donated funds to colleges to endow programs to promote the study of American institutions or capitalism or other parts of society that the alumni feel deserve more attention on campus. At institutions such as Princeton University, such programs have won support both within and outside the academy, but in other cases, disputes have broken out over whether these centers were seeking more autonomy than is appropriate. And that was the case at Illinois.

Faculty members stressed that they objected not to the academic subjects for study, or to the possibility that such subjects might attract conservative scholars, but to the way the program was being set up. The alumni who set up the fund were fairly explicit in saying that they planned to have a formal role in which professors received support from the fund and the views those people should have. They also described a goal of creating a new Hoover Institution in Urbana-Champaign -- not reassuring to professors aware of the long-standing tensions over that center at Stanford University. Many faculty members also said that the university was too quick to accept the funds -- without working out the sort of traditional academic oversight required of other new programs.

In November, a faculty panel found that the original agreement with the donors included provisions that were "fundamentally inconsistent" with university values, and in essence would have restricted some topics for support to those with certain points of view. At that point, university officials said that they would try to renegotiate the terms of the center -- and those negotiations were the talks that have now been called off.

A statement issued by the university said that it and the academy "have mutually agreed, in principle, to discontinue the agreement reached a year ago that would provide funding for teaching and research focusing on the relationship of capitalism and government. Rather than partnering with the university, the fund will become a non-profit foundation, providing grants."

Richard Herman, chancellor of the university, said that "despite the good intentions of the donors and the university, there were structural incompatibilities between the fund’s operational mode and that of the university." As an independent fund, both university and academy officials said, the academy will be able to support many of the same kinds of programs -- but without raising the issues associated with being part of the university.

James E. Vermette, one of the alumni donors and a board member for the academy, stressing that he was speaking only for himself, said he was "extremely enthused" about the possibilities for the academy operating by itself. "This gives us much more freedom to operate," he said.

At the same time, he criticized the faculty committee that had found problems with the original agreement. "I was stunned by it," he said, adding that backers of the academy never wanted to see programs that would "teach only one side of an issue." He said that was "a terrible charge" that professors should not have made.

Faculty leaders said that the outcome -- the center free to support the university but not part of the university -- was exactly what needed to happen.

Nicholas C. Burbules, chair of the Senate at Urbana-Champaign and professor of educational policy studies, said that "without pointing the finger of blame in any direction, it's clear that there wasn't an underlying meeting of the minds about what the agreement entailed" when university administrators first signed off on the plan.

Burbules stressed the faculty opposition was not based on the conservative politics of the donors or possible grant recipients, but on "funding and governance issues." While donors have an important role to play, he said, they can't take over academic responsibilities. "Donors can't create a self-funded entity not subject to traditional review," he said.

Cary Nelson, an Urbana-Champaign professor who is national president of the AAUP, said it was "regrettable that the donors could not understand that faculty control of the grants process, the course design, and the selection of new faculty would have guaranteed the academy's credibility, improved its outcomes, and assured its objectivity. They prefer instead to have political partisans control their operations."


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