About Face in Amherst

Peter Wood

                The University of Massachusetts Amherst has quashed a program that would have given academic credit to students who volunteered for the Obama campaign. The story is out from the Associated Press, linked on Drudge, and in various newspapers.   But none of them explain what really happened yesterday.   Here are some of the details.

                Sunday night a UMass student emailed me that UMass was allowing students to gain academic credit by signing up for an Independent Study course in which they would spend their time working on the Obama campaign. The proof was an email from a UMass chaplain named Kent Higgins who wrote a long “dear friends” with the subject line, “AmherstForObama Needs Your Help Canvassing New Hampshire: Set a Date, Don't Wait Too Late!” It begins breathlessly, “Barack Obama needs YOUR help in New Hampshire, where the race with McCain is still a toss-up! That's right, this means YOU!”              

Fourteen paragraphs later, comes this: 

Also, UMass and 5-College students who would be interested in registering for academic credit associated with the canvassing experience are encouraged to contact me as soon as possible. It is relatively to do late-adds through our sponsor in the History Department, which is offering a 2-credit Independent Study that would involve canvassing or other volunteering through Election Day.


                I decided to look into this on a broader scale. Might similar efforts be happening on other college campuses?   The answer is yes, and that was the focus of my piece, College Credit for Campaign Volunteers, which was posted here early Monday morning.   The essay was publicly available but I specifically called it to the attention of the group of students at UMass Amherst who had taken umbrage at the University’s apparent partisanship.

                Then strange things started to happen. 

                By late morning, Kent Higgins wrote to the student president of the UMass Republican Club, Greg Collins, asking him to distribute a message to “your group and constituents.” Here is the full text of that message: 


Dear friends,

                John McCain needs your help in New Hampshire, where the race with Obama is still a toss-up! Reading this email, thinking about it, giving money, making phone calls, registering voters, and voting yourself are all important, but if you’re really concerned about how to help most effectively, then please COME TO NEW HAMPSHIRE TO CANVASS—as often as you can clear time between now and Election Day! If you’re concerned about the prospects for this election, good! The most important way to make a difference in the outcome is to activate yourself! 

                We are now less than two months away from the election and New Hampshire can go either way, to McCain and Palin, or Obama and Biden. In 2004 the difference in New Hampshire was by less than 1% and largely due to the western part of the state. The canvassers from Western Mass made the difference.   In 2000 Bush won the election because he won New Hampshire. Effective canvassing can be worth 4 percentage points.

               It would help if you can tell us what dates you can do this, and whether you can drive.



__ I have a car and am willing to drive
__ I need a ride and would like to car pool
__ I cannot travel right now but would like to make calls


 Please select any weekend you can travel to New Hampshire:

__ 9/27 - 9/28

__ 10/4 - 10/5

__ 10/11 – 10/12

__ 10/18 – 10/19

__ 10/29 – 11/4

__ 11/1 – 11/4


                I would like to come to NH on these dates:

                Carpools can be formed from arranged meeting points to go canvassing every Saturday and Sunday between now and Election Day. Canvassing is also needed on weekdays--especially evenings. The rides up and back create good conversations and acquaintances.

                Also, UMass and 5-College students who would be interested in registering for academic credit associated with the canvassing experience are encouraged to contact me as soon as possible. It is relatively to do late-adds through our sponsor in the History Department, which is offering a 2-credit Independent Study that would involve canvassing or other volunteering through Election Day.   Whatever political party you're interested in, in this way you can get credit for supporting and volunteering as part of this effort.

                 If you would like to find a student group or buses going up to New Hampshire… If you need a reminder call or wake-up call… If you need to be picked up at your door or dorm…

…just let us know, and we’ll set it up! We can make plenty of cars available to take groups of students. Let me know if you have questions. Hope to see you soon!


Kent Higgins

                Higgins’ “message” is a streamlined version, word for word, of his earlier pro-Obama email, with the substitution of “McCain” at the beginning. 

                I don’t think anyone who imagined that Mr. Higgins was acting out of desperation would be accused of excessive cynicism. He was suddenly aware that he was a tenuous legal position. He had used UMass resources to promote a political position.   He owned a specific email group distribution list, [email protected], for partisan purposes on this public university’s server. That same morning, the distribution list was deleted. 

                Whoever was advising Higgins, however, was not satisfied. A few hours later, Higgins declared, "I made a mistake. In fact, no UMass of [sic] 5-College student will be able to get any credit for any sort of volunteering at all through the History Department." By that time, the Associated Press was on the story and the UMass History Department was in full-scale tail-between-its-legs denial. The AP report notes:

                But university officials disavowed themselves of the effort after inquiries Monday by The Associated Press. They said it could run afoul of state ethics laws banning on-the-job political activity, as well as university policy.

                "There is no independent study for credit in the History Department that involves partisan political work, and no such activity has ever been approved," said a statement issued by UMass-Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

                Audrey Alstadt, chairwoman of the History Department, said: "The History Department supports free exchange of ideas, the study of the human experience including the political system in the U.S. and respects the diversity of opinion and experience of our faculty, staff and students. We do not engage in or sponsor partisan political activity. We certainly do not give academic credit for participation in partisan politics."

                The rubble has not been entirely cleared, which is to say that the cover up continues. Someone approved that email designation. Students at UMass are still looking into some of this. One of them wondered whether University vehicles were being used to transport students to campaign work in New Hampshire. The Vice President of the UMass Republican Club contacted the official in charge of state vehicles, who liked the idea of using them to transport students to campaign events in New Hampshire because that sounded to her, “an excellent place for a UMass student to spend time."

                What happens to those students who had already signed up for academic credit in the History Department before the History Department got caught clarified the situation? Hard to say.

                And who is the faculty member in the History Department who was ready to lend a hand (or who actually lent a hand) to this scheme? So far he hasn’t been identified.

                The good news in this is that responsible officials at the University of Massachusetts realized that awarding academic credit for campaign volunteering is untenable. The bad news is that some officials initially thought it was a good idea. The really bad news is that we have a presidential campaign that actively encourages this mischief. 

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