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A protest Friday at Colorado State-Pueblo

Is Citing History a Threat?

January 20, 2014

On Friday, many at Colorado State University-Pueblo nervously awaited word from administrators on exactly how many jobs would be eliminated there. Officials had warned that the number could be as high as 50 -- a prospect that angered many students and professors at the university who dispute administrators' assertions that the institution faces a deficit requiring layoffs.

Timothy McGettigan, a professor of sociology, sent out an email to students and faculty members in which he urged them to fight the cuts. His subject line was "Children of Ludlow," referring to a 1914 massacre of striking coal miners in southern Colorado. McGettigan compared the way the central system administration was treating Pueblo to the bloody way coal mine owners treated their workers 100 years ago. He went on to say that, just like a century ago, those without power were being mistreated.

He said that the announcement that afternoon would reveal who was on Chancellor Michael Martin's "hit list," and said that the chancellor was "putting a gun to the head" of those who would lose their jobs, "destroying the livelihood of the people that he is terminating" and "incinerating the best opportunity that southern Coloradans have to earn their own little piece of the American dream."

There is no doubt that there are violent images in the email, but they are historic, McGettigan's metaphors for what he thinks the administration is doing. His call to action was to urge people to oppose the cuts and attend a rally against them.

Hours after he sent the email, the university system removed his email account. A memo he received in printed form stated that the university had determined that he had violated a rule banning use of email to "intimidate, threaten, harass other individuals or interfere with the activity of others to conduct university business."

The letter -- from the deputy general counsel of the university system -- stated that administrators had determined that his "Children of Ludlow" email was "one in which immediate action must be taken," so McGettigan was not given a chance to argue that he had done nothing wrong. (The Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors has published both the email and the memo in full here.)

The news that eventually came on Friday was a bit better than some feared, but 22 people (none of them tenured or tenure-track faculty) will lose their jobs. The campus AAUP has argued that no teaching jobs at all should be eliminated, and has questioned many of the budget assumptions used by the administrators.

Faculty members are particularly upset because Martin has talked about how their part of the state is not seeing population growth. They say that may be true, but that their part of the state serves many people who lack other access to higher education -- many of them Latino, low-income or first-generation students -- and that a state university system has obligations to all citizens, not just those in fast-growing (wealthier) counties.

But aside from the debate over the budget cuts, Friday's action has infuriated faculty leaders, who say it is a violation of academic freedom, and a clear example of retaliation against a professor for speaking out against the administration. (The people designated to handle press calls at Pueblo and the system office, as well as the system general counsel and the Pueblo president, all did not respond to email requests for comment on Sunday although on Monday afternoon, well after this story was published, the Pueblo president released a statement, which may be found at the end of the article..)

In a phone interview, McGettigan said that the university's action has made it impossible for him to do his job since the Blackboard account for his courses is based on his university email. And he said that it was absolutely untrue that he was doing anything but exercising his rights to criticize. He said that he believes only in nonviolent protest.

"I think what the administration is saying is that you can be critical thinkers here to the extent you agree with what we say, but that anyone who would dare to engage with the administration's policies in ways that are antithetical to the administration's goal, that will not be tolerated, and those faculty will be shut down."

Jonathan Poritz, vice president of the AAUP at Pueblo and associate professor of mathematics, said via email that McGettigan had every right to make the historical comparison he did.

"McGettigan's offending email ... makes an analogy between the famous Ludlow massacre of miners and their families in southern Colorado, instigated by mine owners in Denver, and the CSU System's recent power-play: the system has imposed significant financial cuts, whose specifics were to be decided in a matter of weeks -- therefore potentially causing enormous harm to our students, colleagues, and the community -- at a time when the system is in fact so flush with funds that a new football stadium is being built in Fort Collins and a new campus is being established in the Denver Metro South.

"How administration could think that McGettigan's Ludlow metaphor rises to the level of 'safety, security, of another matter of an emergency nature' [the standard for immediate removal of an email account] is beyond me. In fact, he is concerned with the welfare of the students at our institution, with the excellence and indeed viability of our programs in the face or such an aggressive central system chancellor."

Poritz added: "Tim McGettigan speaks passionately, in person and by email, in defense of this university and its students. His words are an example of the highest purpose of academic freedom, to nurture and improve the pedagogy and scholarship of an institution of higher education, even when they go against the plans of an ambitious administrator acting as an cruel absentee landlord."

UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Colorado State-Pueblo sent an email to Inside Higher Ed saying that McGettigan had violated the policy on use of electronic communications. Further, she released a statement from  President Lesley Di Mare, in which she invoked recent incidents of violence in education. "Considering the lessons we’ve all learned from Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more recently Arapahoe High School, I can only say that the security of our students, faculty, and staff are our top priority," Di Mare said. "CSU-Pueblo is facing some budget challenges right now, which has sparked impassioned criticism and debate across our campus community. That’s entirely appropriate, and everyone on campus – no matter how you feel about the challenges at hand – should be able to engage in that activity in an environment that is free of intimidation, harassment, and threats. CSU-Pueblo has a wonderful and vibrant community, and the university has a bright future. I’m confident that we can solve our challenges with respectful debate and creative problem-solving so that we can focus on building that future together."

 

 

 

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