Julie Pike, Editor-in-chief
The UMS Board of Trustees (BoT) has been in the works on a new policy, “Institutional authority on political matters.” The proposal was first introduced five months ago, but on Friday, Feb. 2, the USM Faculty Senate had a chance to weigh in on their opinions.
This proposal, Board Policy 214, addresses the exact guidelines for UMS faculty to follow if they plan on engaging in political activity. This includes restrictions such as, no UMS employee may engage in political activity on their work time or use university resources, and they are also not allowed to use university classes to endorse or oppose specific political candidates. However, the policy states that, “This provision will not be construed to restrict legitimate exercises of academic freedom, pursued for legitimate curricular or pedagogical purposes.”
The policy also outlines what issues that the UMS Chancellor and System University Presidents may publicly speak about, using a stoplight diagram. This states that university officials have the authority to speak about issues on behalf of their institution if that issue involves topics such as, academic administration, curriculum, health and safety of students and employees and issues critical to the wellbeing of the institution. Those topics would be considered to be in the green category of the diagram.
In the yellow category it lists topics that are indirectly related to the university, that should be reviewed before discussed, such as climate change and labor standards. Then the red zone lists issues that are not related to the institution, ones that should be strayed away from in discussion, such as abortion policy or tax reform.
At the Faculty Senate meeting, James Thelen, the Chief of Staff and General Council to the UMS system, was in attendance to address comments and concerns from faculty members. At the time of this meeting, revisions had been made to Board Policy 214, after faculty from different UMS campuses had given negative feedback.
Thelen stated that Board Policy 214 had its foundation in Board Policy 212, which address free speech, academic freedom and civility. The free speech policy had been recently revised in March of last year, its first revision since 1974.
In the free inquiry and academic freedom section of Board Policy 212, it states that, “system faculty and staff have the right to comment as employees on matters related to their professional duties, and the functioning of the University. System employees have a responsibility and an obligation to indicate when expressing personal opinions that they are not institutional representatives unless specifically authorized as such.”
These policy changes initially came up after President Trump’s election in 2016. Days after the election the BoT met at the University of Maine in Machias, when a student representative on the board spoke up about the need to take a public stand about civility and political power.
With the new policy, Thelen stated that it was intended to be viewed through the lens of what the rights of free speech are. However, by not actively stating the free speech rights in the policy, they saw backlash from faculty.
“By not directly calling out that we were intentionally trying to address free speech in our first draft, we caused a lot of consternation, and frankly we deserved it,” Thelen said. “Faculty members still have all of the rights that exist in policy 212.” The revised version of the policy includes a paragraph that states that the policy is intended to be read, interpreted and administered in conjunction with Board Policy 212.
During the meeting with the Faculty Senate, Thelen mentioned that the policy was following IRS guidelines about a tax exempt institution and what political activities they can engage in. He also stated that the BoT got feedback from faculty that work on public policy matters, as well as other lawyers.
When it came time for faculty to share their input, Susan Feiner, President of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine (AFUM), spoke up about her concerns.
“This is a policy that is overreached,” Feiner said. “You are trying to craft language that represents us in something we don’t do.” Feiner stated that free speech becomes a contract issue once a policy is explicit on the prohibition to represent the university.
The question arose of what faculty’s rights are in regard to speaking publicly about the university.
“I frequently represent myself as someone against the university,” Feiner added.
Wendy Chapkis, a professor of Women and Gender Studies and Sociology, stated that the policy should be reworked to only address system presidents and the chancellor, not the faculty members, to which several faculty members applauded.
The only official statement before this policy, regarding political activity guidelines for UMS faculty, was written in an administrative practice letter. The statement, which was only one sentence long, only included that faculty couldn’t use university funds for political purposes.
“What we’ve put here is what the law of the land is and the BoT wants to represent that,” Thelen stated.
In response to this, a faculty member in attendance questioned that if the faculty were already governed by federal law, then why wouldn’t that statement be sufficient.
It was also brought up during the meeting that one of the current BoT members is running for governor in the upcoming election. Shawn Moody, the owner of Moody’s Collision Centers and a Gorham resident, has served on the BoT since 2014. He is running as a Republican candidate for governor in Nov. However, his appointment on the BoT is set to expire in May of this year.
Thelen stated that the BoT has reviewed that there is no conflict, and that UMS is not officially endorsing him.
The BoT had met the previous Monday to discuss the revisions to Board Policy 214. USM President Glenn Cummings stated that the feedback that they had gotten from those changes was very positive.
“They did a better job of protecting and drawing a clear bright line between your absolute rights as a citizen to weigh in on whatever you want, as long as you’re not acting in some way that could confused with your position,” Cummings stated.
However, the feedback from the USM Faculty Senate only brought up concerns and criticism regarding the policy, despite the revised changes.
A big concern among faculty is how this policy will affect discussion in the classroom.
“Faculty should have the freedom to explore topics that may be sensitive, controversial, or political, all in the pursuit of understanding, reaching a truth and developing critical thinking skills,” said Daniel Panici, a professor of Communications and Media Studies.
Panici also stated that he thinks the policy undermines students’ ability to critically think and engage in dialogue, and that this policy would only disrupt discussion.
“Almost every issue we deal with in media and communications is political,” Panici said. “It’s going to be messy to have to have a talk with students every time about where my opinions are coming from.”
Cummings touched on this concern for faculty, “if a professor reveals their political predisposition… they are not in danger as long as they are not trying to specifically use a platform to then influence students in that direction.” However, Cummings added that they would have to clearly state, ‘this is what I believe,’ when discussing political matters.
Despite his concerns, Panici stated that he believes this policy is more aimed at university presidents and chancellors, because they are the ones that are engaged in both the educational and political arena, an argument that multiple faculty brought up during the meeting.
To end the Faculty Senate discussion, which had to be cut short due to time constraints, Thelen stated that the BoT will consider whether or not there is a way to remove faculty from the proposal.