Education

Iowa campus employees can politick, with caveats

Regent universities set guidelines for faculty and staff

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public universities long have had policies on academic freedom, professional ethics and academic responsibilities.

After the 2016 elections exposed a deep national divide, and with lawmakers using social media and legislative proposals to try to influence what academics should or shouldn’t do in the political maelstrom, Iowa’s three public universities issued guidelines on political activity and expression. And with the midterm election voting underway, there are reminders.

“As we look forward to the campaign season and upcoming legislative session, I am writing to remind you of Iowa State’s policies regarding political advocacy and prohibition of using university resources for political purposes,” ISU Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert wrote in an Oct. 1 message to campus.

In an Oct. 8 message to the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, administrators reminded ISU employees that as citizens they have rights to participate in the political process, but as government employees should take care their personal views don’t come across as university views — a growing danger with social media tempting users to weigh in on partisan back-and-forth.

“Using university computer, email accounts and telephones for personal advocacy is not permitted,” according to the October message, which also included a reminder about classroom discussion.

“Take care to ensure that any discussions are germane to the curriculum of a course, and avoid activities that may be perceived as partisan in nature without providing similar opportunities for members of the campus community with other viewpoints.”

ISU is not alone in seeking a balance between academic freedoms and on-the-job political expressions. The University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa have taken similar approaches.

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UI administrators updated its political activity guidance for faculty in February 2017 — just months after the election of Donald Trump, who has used social media with more frequency than any predecessor.

UI staff guidance was updated this October after being taken down from a website a year ago, “recognizing that it needed to be updated and to make it more in line with the guidelines for faculty,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said.

Among other things, the guidance stresses faculty and staff are free to campaign for candidates, put up yard signs, use personal email and phones to campaign and comment on social media “using their personal computer or other personal device.”

But the guidance warns against using official titles — especially for those in key roles.

“Where use of the university title would imply that the staff member is expressing the university’s viewpoint or position … use of the title is not appropriate unless the university has adopted such a position and the staff member is charged with representing that position in an official capacity,” it says.

UNI, likewise, has guidance requiring political activity happen on employee time with employee resources.

In addressing classroom debate, UI guidance notes, “Controversial political topics may certainly be introduced into classroom discussions and in other instructional contexts — and should be — but with appropriate regard to context.”

Faculty on all three campuses are warned they must be evenhanded in doling out political perspectives or inviting speakers to class.

Christopher Larimer, UNI political science professor, said he’s not surprised the universities are refreshing their campuses on ethics.

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“I think there is a need to do that, because it’s not just the younger generation,” he said. “Faculty are more engaged on social media, and they need to be aware of the guidelines.”

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become more than venues to share ideas and voice opinions — they’ve become prime news disseminating sites, with many students reporting to Larimer that Facebook and Twitter are their main media resources.

Regarding classroom guidance, Larimer said, most university employees know the rules well.

“As long as they are adhering to the guidelines about what you can and can’t do, it’s not surprising they are engaged politically,” he said.

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

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