Unbuttoned in Illinois

Peter Wood

A few years ago, the remains of a World War I British soldier were recovered near the Somme. He was identified by his buttons as a member of the Royal Lancaster Regiment of the The King’s Own, who died in an attack on July 1, 1916. 

If the Huns were now to pull a surprise attack on the University of Illinois, however, we would have no buttons to identify the fallen. That’s because the University’s ethics office has notified all employees – faculty included – that they may not wear political buttons while present on any of the school’s campuses. Perhaps we can trust that the Germans have finally learned their lesson after two World Wars and that the campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield are safe from this threat, but still it seems an unnecessary risk to send faculty members out to teach without their Obama buttons. They may be mistaken for Republicans, or something.

The University’s memo also forbids affixing “partisan” bumper stickers to the cars they park in school lots. This seems more sensible. All those “Got Milk?” partisan pitches for the dairy industry test the outer limits of academic freedom.  Also many of these bumper stickers are unnecessarily provocative. “My dog is smarter than your honor student” has been known to cause fisticuffs between academic dog fanciers and the proud progenitors of faculty brats. And let it not be forgotten that Cary Nelson, the head of the AAUP and professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana, sports on his car the bumper sticker, “My Samoyed is a Democrat.” 

Professors were also informed that they were prohibited from attending any political rallies on their campuses unless these were also “non–partisan,” and did not seek support for specific candidates. The official ethics employee handbook at U Illinois states the basis for the policy outlined in the memo:

Prohibited political activities are those actions taken by employees to specifically promote a particular party, candidate, referendum, or political agenda. The Ethics Act prohibits such activities while on University time or using University resources.

It’s not apparent what prompted the memo. Last week, U Mass Amherst made the news when its chaplain got caught circulating an email that encouraged students to earn academic credit by volunteering for the Obama campaign. The U Mass administration quickly covered its tracks, took back the credit offer and declared that it had been “a mistake.” Perhaps U Illinois is responding to the same curmudgeonly pressure to keep the good fun of political campaigning out of the classroom. But banning everything political seems a bit excessive. Will supporters of SpongeBob SquarePants for president have to change their underwear? 

U Illinois may have sought the safe course, but as often happens, an excess of timidity can lead to danger too. The button-busters instantly were jabbed. Cary Nelson unleashed the Samoyeds of war. He denounced the new rules as an “infringement on academic freedom,” and noting that the AAUP “deplores their chilling effect on speech, their interference with the educational process, and their implicit castigation of normal practice during political campaigns.” Actually Samoyeds are known for liking chilly weather. 

John K. Wilson of College Freedom asserted that “this grotesque interpretation of the ethics rules is both unconstitutional and a clear violation of academic freedom,” and called for the immediate dismissal of those who had devised the new policies. But Mr. Wilson is not especially known for his sense of humor.

Other commentators more imaginatively concluded that the U of I ethics panel had been acting at the behest of dark “right wing” forces. We at the NAS are often accused of being the central conduit of right wing conspiracies in higher education, and as it happens, the University of Illinois failed to consult with us about this plan. If they had, we would have opposed it. We think it is in the public interest that all University of Illinois faculty members wear buttons.     

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