Free Speech Series

Administrator’s political activity memo draws backlash from some SU faculty members

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Community members at Syracuse University can participate in political activities but need to specify that they aren't representing the university as a whole.

Editor’s Note: Over the past month, The Daily Orange has collaborated with the Department of Newspaper and Online Journalism at Syracuse University on a series of stories relating to free speech. 

A memorandum sent by Syracuse University leadership about political activity policies has sparked concerns from some faculty members who fear the memo’s timing of release and tone might send a chilling effect on speech amid highly politicized environment.

The three-page memo, distributed to department heads, directors and deans Feb. 27, originated from Vice Chancellor Mike Haynie’s office and the Office of Government and Community Relations.. It lays out guidance for the university’s employees in interacting with government officials and political candidates as well as making political speech.

SU community members, the memo contends, can participate in political activity “on their own behalves” but they need to specify that their views are not reflective of the university as a whole. The memo also admonishes university resources should not be used for personal political activities, faculty and staff have to disclose their lobbying actives and neither public nor government funds are allowed to spend on lobbying efforts.

“It is important to remind members of the administration, faculty and staff of long-standing University policies designed to ensure that the activities and speech of individual members of our University community do not create a situation where Syracuse University (the institution) can be viewed as engaging in partisan political speech,” the memo states.

Haynie did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Abby Perer, associate general counsel for litigation and compliance at SU, also could not be reached for comment.

The memorandum gained notoriety in the public light during March 22 University Senate meeting when Crystal Bartolovich, associate professor of English, pressed Vice Chancellor and Provost Michele Wheatly to clarify about the memo. Wheatly appeared to be blindsided by Bartolovich’s demand for response, was at loss for a reply, receiving a chorus of denial to her wandered remark that it has been a custom to send reminders to “our learning community.”

Chancellor Kent Syverud informed the senate the following week that the memo was sent from Haynie because he had been in charge of government relations with SU and said the provost will have further information about academic freedom issues. Wheatly was not present at that meeting.

Kevin Quinn, senior vice president of public affairs, said in an email that Syverud’s remark in the meeting “summarize the full situation” and did not elaborate any further regarding the memo.

While faculty members who were interviewed show their understanding of the policies specified in the memo, they question how the memo was delivered and its overall tone.

“The tone of this letter is just kind of like ‘we want to remind you about relevant laws and regulations and university policies like be watching out for people violating the law,’” said Dana Cloud, communication and rhetorical studies professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “There’s kind of a surveillance feel to the document and the timing of it is troubling.”

The memo itself has a warning function, Cloud said, adding that the jobs of intellectuals should be to help inform the public discussion over political issues.

The professor, who was recently listed in a website called Professor Watchlist that lists of names of professors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” said she is not sure if she feels scrutinized as an individual but shares a concern that faculty members are feeling disciplined about the university monitoring their activity.

Mark Rupert, political science professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said it is uncommon for university faculty to receive a reminder of such kind.

“The tone of the memo people interpreted as chilling, meaning it seems to be intended to discourage us from speaking out based on the kind of the language that was used,” Rupert said. “Faculty in general are committed to values of academic freedom, and Maxwell faculty in particular because we are a school of citizenship and public affairs … a memo like that sort of rubs us the wrong on both counts.”

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