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Like some of its collegiate peers across the state and nation, Coe College is facing backlash over its Student Senate's initial rejection of a campus chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA.
Coe's 30-member Student Senate this month denied an application for Turning Point, a national conservative not-for-profit with a presence on more than 1,500 high school and college campuses - including more than 20 in Iowa, from public universities to private colleges.
Some of the Iowa chapters have been hard-fought, including at Wartburg College and Drake University, where Turning Point proposals initially were rejected but students appealed and persisted - for years in Wartburg's case - eventually establishing a campus presence.
Cornell College, meanwhile, refused a Turning Point chapter two years ago and has not reversed course.
The juxtaposing responses epitomize the free speech debate unfolding across American colleges as political divides widen - including in Iowa, where lawmakers last year passed a bill outlining freedom of expression mandates for its public universities.
A lawmaker this year proposed legislation requiring the free speech guidelines extend to Iowa's private colleges. The bill, however, didn't survive subcommittee.
Coe President David McInally, in response to the proposed legislation, told The Gazette it aligns with his college's mission and existing policies.
'I am not sure what prompted the House to consider this bill. I have not heard examples of private colleges in Iowa limiting freedom of expression,” he said.
'If all private colleges in Iowa have at their own initiative adopted policies similar to Coe's, then perhaps this bill is not necessary.”
Before Coe's Student Senate on Feb. 12 denied the application for an officially recognized Turning Point chapter, it posed more than a dozen questions, met in private for two hours and didn't disclose details of the final vote, according to Coe freshman Tanner Buchanan, who is leading the push for a Turning Point chapter on campus.
Although Student Senate leadership denied their decision was politically motivated, Buchanan said one senator told him most already knew how they would vote when the entered executive discussion.
'They were already planning to vote no to our club, but they needed to discuss ‘legitimate' reasons to not approve us,” he said. 'So from the knowledge I have and my experiences, our denial was very much politically motivated.”
In speaking about the Coe rejection on Fox News recently, Turning Point Founder Charlie Kirk said the denial came 'without a chance for them to address anonymous concerns over the organization.”
Kirk urged Coe to 'reconsider this” or face 'actual ramifications” - after President Donald Trump last year signed an executive order tying federal research funding to free inquiry on campuses.
'They might have their federal funding withheld,” Kirk said. 'That is if they intentionally suppress the speech of students based on political viewpoints and violate political neutrality.”
Buchanan - who came to Coe from Macomb, Ill. to play soccer - distanced himself from Kirk's comments about the institution. But he shared the concern it doesn't have a politically conservative group, offering a counter to Coe's College Democrats club.
'We are in the middle of Iowa, farm country,” he said. 'There are lots of conservatives on campus.”
Reasons for rejection
Coe's Student Senate leadership told The Gazette the rejection of Turning Point USA had nothing to do with politics or its conservative ideology. They spelled out four reasons for the rejection.
First, according to the senate, Coe's Turning Point leadership made 'generally misleading” statements about its faculty adviser involvement. In presenting to senators, Buchanan said an adviser would be 'very involved.” But in his application suggested the adviser would provide only general oversight.
'This is the most involvement he wishes to partake in,” according to the application. 'After that, everything will be up to our student officers.”
Senators also expressed concern the Coe Turning Point chapter doesn't need Student Senate funding and thus wouldn't need to share specific campus plans with the governors.
'The association with the national organization of Turning Point USA - the lack of oversight and auditing that we have with other politically affiliated clubs on campus,” was a concern, according to an email Student Body Vice President Kayden Dangremond sent to Buchanan.
In addition, Buchanan 'didn't go through proper channels to become a Coe-recognized organization,” according to Dangremond, noting he started using the Coe name in association with Turning Point before receiving official club approval.
Senators also expressed qualms over a Turning Point 'professor watch list,” which aggregates college professors believed to discriminate against conservative students.
The list doesn't identify any Coe professors. It does include two University of Iowa professors, for example, and Dangremond said the list 'goes against Coe's mission statement and the general point of a liberal arts education.”
'If students have the ability to see which professors they disagree with, they can avoid them and therefore inhibit their education,” she wrote to Buchanan.
Dangremond acknowledged Turning Point chapters have been moving away from use and affiliation with the watch list. And she and Student Body President Madeline Fink defended their group's denial as relatively typical.
'We have denied many clubs on similar grounds in the past with issues and discrepancies on their constitution and application,” Dangremond said.
'It takes initiative from the club to try to fix mistakes made. But they have every chance to come back to the full senate.”
Buchanan said he plans to reapply. And, in a statement from the Coe College administration, officials said they expect Turning Point will try again for group recognition 'after satisfying all of the student senate's procedural requirements.”
Coe President McInally told The Gazette he's met with students on both sides, and they've all 'been respectful of one another and the process.”
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