Higher education

Iowa public university campuses face test over election reactions

Board of Regents president says it's time to move on

The Curris Business Building at the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)
The Curris Business Building at the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)
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Colleges and universities espouse the necessity of having a diversity of thought on campus to best educate students.

But an overheated campaign season has left a wide political divide in its wake — one testing just what campuses see as their proper role.

Iowa’s public universities are among those attempting to navigate the fray. Students are imploring their leaders to try to protect immigrants; a lawmaker is demanding students upset with the presidential election “suck it up” or risk their institutions facing consequences; and controversial speakers on campus are sparking debate about where to draw the line.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said it’s time campuses move forward in their educational missions.

“Depending on how you voted, you’re either happy or you’re not happy,” said Rastetter, an agribusiness mogul and GOP power player.

“At the end of the day, there’s a job to do in educating students, going to class, teaching classes,” he said. “And so we’re glad that’s all moving forward today rather than focusing on the results of the election.”

Rastetter responded last week to student calls in the wake of Donald Trump’s election for university leaders to declare some type of “sanctuary” status for immigrants on campus — especially for those enlisted in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows certain undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors a reprieve from deportation.

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“One of the things that we try to do at the Board of Regents is abide by state law and federal law, and so I would suggest that we follow state law and federal law, which does not include sanctuary campuses,” he said.

Acknowledging the student concerns, Rastetter said Iowa’s public universities put “significant effort” into creating inclusive environments.

“But we believe they should follow state law and federal law and not be sanctuary campuses,” he said.

Last month, Republican state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton drew national headlines when he said he’ll proposed a “suck it up, buttercup” bill next year that would impose penalties on any Iowa universities that use taxpayer dollars to fund election-related sit-ins and grief counseling above and beyond what is normally available to students.

Ideology aside, said state Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Democrat whose Cedar Fall district includes the University of Northern Iowa, a campus “is not a vacuum” that’s immune to larger goings on.

The reality, he said, is that students, faculty and staff are affected by political outcomes.

“Those things are going to influence the learning environment on a campus, and those who are running an educational environment better find a way to manage it,” Danielson said.

Such management, he said, should consider the emotional aspect of thought and the dynamics of group interactions.

“If I was a campus president,” he said. “I would encourage this as a learning moment.”

Test of free speech

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Iowa State University Student Government President Cole Staudt last month led a student discussion on creating a “more inclusive campus” in the wake of “racist and unacceptable acts” that had included white heritage signs posted on campus buildings.

And, he said, emotions were considered in allowing one student to invite to campus Milo Yiannopoulos — a widely protested writer for Breitbart News who has been banned from Twitter and branded a white nationalist.

“I wasn’t particularly excited that he was going to come to campus,” Staudt said. “But we don’t stop speakers from coming because of what they’re going to say. It’s a public university. It’s against the law for us to do that. So we never would do that.”

Yiannopoulos’ visit — which had been scheduled for last Friday — eventually was canceled after ISU officials determined additional security was necessary.

“Everywhere he goes, there’s a very large reaction,” Staudt said. “Sometimes there’s bomb threats or other security issues. And so that was something we were preparing for.”

ISU Memorial Union staff reported notifying event organizers twice — once before the down payment and once after — they would need to comply with the venue’s policies, including paying for “facility staffing to address additional service requests and/or risk management concerns.”

Corey Williamson, interim Memorial Union director, said in a statement that event organizers and Yiannopoulos’ production manager acknowledged the need for extra security but “expressed concerns about the group’s ability to fund the cost.”

Staudt said the security fees were about $1,900, and the university offered to postpone the event so organizers could get the money. The organizers declined, citing Yiannopoulos’ schedule.

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“It’s too bad that Milo wouldn’t pay the security fee, but it is what it is,” Staudt said.

Other campuses, including North Dakota State University, have like ISU, canceled a visit by Yiannopoulos, citing student safety and the cost of security.

At other campus events that have gone forward, Yiannopoulos has been met by protesters — even leading to arrests in some cases.

He’s not the only campus speaker who has sparked debate since the election. A public group recently invited white nationalist leader Richard Spencer to speak at Texas A&M University, prompting the university to distance itself.

“Our leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values,” said a senior vice president and communications officer.

Staudt said many ISU staff and students felt a similar struggle over the Yiannopoulos visit.

“I think Milo has every right to say what he’s saying — what he’s saying is not against any laws,” Staudt said. “However, the right to free speech does not mean you should say something. There are much more productive ways to go about having conversation on the issues that Milo brings up.”

Sen. Danielson, who works at the Cedar Falls Fire Department, agreed and even questioned the free speech argument.

“As a firefighter, I could point out that free speech as a right is not separate from responsibility,” he said. “You cannot shout fire in a crowded theater and expect that your speech is going to be consequence free.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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