WASHINGTON -- "Our president needs you," the e-mailed advertisement virtually shouts above a picture of President Obama amid a sea of supporters. With the president's critics hoping for him to fail and planning a return to failed policies of the past, the ad says, he "needs leaders in Congress who will work alongside him."
The ad doesn't specifically encourage votes for Democrats and against Republicans; the closest it comes is the exhortation, "If you don't vote, they win," the "they" presumably referring to Republican and Tea Party types. But it does point the intended recipients -- supporters of historically and predominantly black colleges -- to a get-out-the-vote website sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
The DNC has sponsored a series of such ads aimed at black voters, and the idea that someone would direct a similar message to the influential black college community is not surprising. What did surprise some of the higher education officials who received the solicitation Thursday, though, was that it arrived in their e-mail boxes from the sender "NAFEO President's office" -- NAFEO being the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, an advocacy group for historically and predominantly black colleges.
As a nonpartisan, nonprofit group registered under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, NAFEO is expressly prohibited from "directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." By encouraging the defeat of opponents of a specific official -- President Obama -- and promoting a
Democratic Party website, the ad would certainly appear to put NAFEO out of compliance with the tax code.
NAFEO's president, Lezli Baskerville, admits as much -- but said Thursday that while the e-mail had gone out from an account in her name, she had not authorized it and was "mortified" by it. "This piece absolutely is not a NAFEO piece, and it should not have been sent by NAFEO," Baskerville said when Inside Higher Ed sent her a copy of the e-mail, which she said she had not previously seen.
The organization is involved in several nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts, in conjunction with the National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, and has encouraged political science departments on its member campuses to involve their students in nonpartisan voting efforts, all of which fall within NAFEO's tax-exempt mission, Baskerville said.
But the e-mail ad distributed Thursday "does cross boundaries," said a clearly agitated Baskerville. who said she was not yet sure who on the association's staff had been responsible for distributing it. Late Thursday, she sent out an e-mail explaining the error and saying that the organization was "taking steps to ensure such actions are not repeated, including educating staff on these issues."
NAFEO's e-mail comes on the heels of a controversy at one of its member institutions, Winston-Salem State University, where officials in the student affairs office forwarded to all employees and students a student's e-mail encouraging voters to support Democrats, in violation of a state law. Winston-Salem officials promptly acknowledged their mistake and sent out a comparable e-mail encouraging votes for Republicans -- which it also retracted as a mistake.