Tuesday, April 26, 2011

University of Iowa Professor Tells College Republicans to "Fuck Off"

On April 18, the University of Iowa's chapter of the College Republicans sent out a university-wide e-mail announcing a series of events for "Conservative Coming Out Week." The e-mail had been approved for distribution by the Vice President for Student Services at U of I, and the events including an "Animal Rights BBQ," a blood drive, and a kickball game against the College Democrats. Ellen Lewin, a professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies, replied to all recipients of the e-mail with a short note, "FUCK YOU, REPUBLICANS."

This started a sadly predictable cascade of responses and recriminations. The College Republicans responded with shock (shock!) that their e-mail had been much with such hostility. Professor Lewin responded by halfheartedly apologizing and then blaming her emotional response on the College Republicans expropriation of the language of "coming out," among other things. The College Republicans' faculty adviser, Professor Tim Hagle (Political Science), chastised Professor Lewin for her profanity without defending the content of the e-mail. And, U of I president, Sally Mason, sent out an e-mail affirming the university's commitment to the values of diversity and respect, defended everyone's right to speak their mind, and asked everyone to play nicely in the future without actually mentioning the specific events that prompted her e-mail.

A few thoughts:

1. What was Professor Lewin thinking? More precisely, what the fuck was she thinking? I don't know about the current political climate in Iowa, but the whole notion of public research universities is being seriously questioned down here in Texas and elsewhere across the country. The movement against public research universities is motivated, in part, by the perception of ideological and political biases in the academy. E-mailing the entire university to tell the College Republicans to "FUCK OFF" (all caps!) just confirms that perception. So, thanks.

2. Professor Lewin excused her actions, in part, by noting the offense she took over the College Republicans use of the language of "coming out" in support of their political activities on campus:
I should note that several things in the original message were extremely offensive, nearly rising to the level of obscenity.  Despite the Republicans’ general disdain for LGBT rights you called your upcoming event “conservative coming out day,” appropriating the language of the LGBT right movement.  
I don't think the College Republicans should equate announcing one's political conservatism with one's homosexuality, but I don't think it's unfounded to do so. University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has specifically equated the social pressures facing conservatives pursuing academic careers in his field with those faced by homosexuals in the 1980s. Indeed, Professor Lewin's e-mail proves the point. If a mildly provocative mass e-mail can generate a "FUCK OFF" (all caps!) in response, imagine what waits for a student who chooses to defend traditional marriage or critique feminism in one of Professor Lewin's classes. It is difficult for a college-aged student to express views and admit identities that he or she believes are contrary to the prevailing norms of their community. In the context of many academic disciplines, these kinds of conformist social pressures work against students expressing conservative political views or identities, and college faculty---above all---should be sensitive to that.

3. There must be some sort of software that generates mass e-mails for college administrators. I don't know what the algorithm is, but it clearly mandates references to unobjectionable "core values" and the academic trinity (teaching, research, and service) as well as total silence on all substantive questions. In any event, Sally Mason, U of I's president, clearly has the program:
Dear Members of the University Community:
The University of Iowa encourages freedom of expression, opposing viewpoints, and civil debate about those opposing viewpoints.  This is clearly articulated in our core values of Diversity and Respect.  Because diversity, broadly defined, advances its mission of teaching, research, and service, the University is dedicated to an inclusive community in which people of different cultural, national, individual, and academic backgrounds encounter one another in a spirit of cooperation, openness, and shared appreciation.
The University also strongly encourages student engagement in such discussions and supports students acting on their viewpoints.  Student organizations are sometimes formed along political lines and act on their political beliefs.  Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way.  Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior.
Sally Mason

1 comment:

  1. Here’s my interview with Tim Hagle, the University of Iowa College Republicans faculty advisor, about Lewin’s “F— You, Republicans!” email response to the group’s invite for people to participate in “Conservative Coming Out Week,” and what it’s like being a conservative on a college campus.