Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Some months ago Governor Mike Rounds stopped by Aberdeen during a flying tour of the state and commented that Northern State University needed to find a niche in higher education. It seems to have found one as a partisan university tied to the Republican Party. At least that is the perception of some people who do not include themselves in the conservative camp--and they include not just general citizens, but professors and students at NSU.
Political discussion is an important part of a university. That has been true at Northern. In the past third of a century, faculty from Northern have engaged in politics and joined the Congressional staffs of members from both parties. Professors have chaired local political parties and have taken leaves of absence to serve on campaigns. In pursuing their partisan interests, they have been meticulous about insuring that their political work was kept widely separate from their responsibilities as professors. They operated under the rule that a college or university must encourage responsible discussion and the free and open exchange of viewpoints, but it must never become the tool of any one political agenda or be seen as controlled by any party organization. There is a difference between the faculty at a university participating in politics by expressing their ideas and viewpoints and using the university to push their political agenda. Northern State University seems to have crossed over the line into a partisan alliance.
The statement on academic freedom that defines the line between responsible exercise of free speech and the involvement in political activities that compromise the integrity of the institution sets precise standards:
"When [faculty members] speak or write as citizens, they must be free from instituti0nal censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations...they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should indicate that they are speaking only for themselves."
[S.D. Regents Policy Manual]
To many, NSU seems to have crossed the line into enlisting the university into a partisan cause. University resources appear to be used to support Republican politics. People are noting the partisan appearance of NSU with great caution, as most people see the University as a major asset to the region and hope fervently it has not become what one professor called a "patronage organization for the Republican Party." Still, the reports of incidents which have caused some people to feel insulted and offended mount up. Individually, the incidents do not amount to much. But taken together, they form the appearance of a university that is projecting strong partisan support and bias without much regard for its role as a medium and mediator for genuine debate.
The first incidents occured when canvassers for the Democratic Party approached professor of trumpet Grant Manhart. His anti-Tom Daschle comments to the canvassers, who were students, were more hostile than a mere expression of opinion, according to the students. They had the effect of drawing a political line. When a musical group lead by Manhart began to play dance music for one of the major charity balls held locally, a number of attendees left. One woman said, "I wish I could enjoy the music, but the political rancor keeps intruding." Later, the group played for the Lincoln Day dinner, causing many comments about whether this was in fact a Northern or a Republican musical organization. The hostility of the campaign lingered on. We do not know any specifics of exchanges between Prof. Manhart and students, but we do know that some perceive hostility.
Head basketball coach Don Meyer is also prominent in Republican affairs. He was master of ceremonies at the Republican Lincoln Day dinner. While we are told that he makes his Republican preferences known quite openly, we have not heard any complaints about Republican attitudes affecting his coaching and teaching. His prominence in the community does contribute to the perception of partisanship of the Northern Campus. Taken with other instances of the university supporting Republican activities, his participation seems to carry more to them than the participation of an individual.
The major factor in the perception of an agenda was when two political science professors joined the blog South Dakota Politics. This blog was begun by two men who were eventually put on the payroll of the John Thune campaign for their efforts. One of the bloggers, Jon Lauck, was a professor of history at SDSU. The other, Jason Van Beek, was a lawyer who, after the election, served on the staff of the state attorney general. Both men are now serving on Thune's senate staff. The blog the men started was devoted to generating ad hominem attacks against Tom Daschle. While the blog itself did not seem to have the readership to influence the election, the anti-Daschle messages it posted became the gospel for the Thune campaign. Professors Ken Blanchard and Jon Schaff joined the blog and quickly demonstrated that personal attack , insult, and abuse would take precedence over any analysis and discussion of issues.
Blanchard and Schaff discovered the Brown County Democrats' web log, the Northern Valley Beacon, and took it upon themselves to systematically misrepresent and falsify the posts. For a period of time, they did this to almost every post. They used partial quotations for which they supplied false contexts, habitually impugned the mental health and competence of the Beacon authors, and degenerated poltical discussion to a level of scurrility and petty malevolence that was offensive to Democrats and most people who became witness to it. The Northern Valley Beacon was ended to stop the degradation of politics by the bloggers, even though it was a passive target and had no intention of engaging South Dakota Politics or having anything to do with it.
Blanchard and Schaff did not make any attempt to keep their blogging posts on a professional level. They often alluded to the fact that they were Northern professors, which suggested that their efforts had the sanction of the University. Students of theirs who had occasion to visit their offices reported that they seemed to be doing their posting from their University offices at times. When Blanchard used a newspaper column to attack the Northern Valley Beacon and falsified quotations by changing words and putting partial quotations into false contexts, many Democrats complained. A letter pointing out the falsifications was submitted to the newspaper, but the editors declined to offer corrections other than for one of the minor fabrications by Blanchard.
The efforts by the two bloggers carried over into what may well be legitimate and proper political activity by others on the campus. Their failures to observe the standards of discourse required by policy and the general rules of valid debate tainted all political activity on the campus, particularly that in behalf of the Republican Party.
Then the Northern Foundation hired a former student who became a Congressional staff member for Bill Janklow and then a director of the South Dakota Right To Life organzation, Rachel Hansen. Previous to her working for the Foundation, a former member of John Thune's staff worked for it. It was this circumstance that caused a faculty member to ask if the University operated as a "patronage organization" that gives jobs to former Republican staff members.
Northern State University has an image problem among Democrats. It appears to be offering special services to the Republican Party and to be endorsing its agenda. We have received inquiries about supporting the University by sending students there and by contributing to the Foundation, and whether our tax dollars are being fairly and responsibly spent on what appears to be a partisan agenda.
Perhaps the University is unaware of how matters look from the Democratic perspective. If it all is a matter of appearances, we hope the University can take the proper measures to correct them. If the University is in fact endorsing a partisan agenda for a segment of its faculty, then the matter becomes one to take up with the legislature and the Regents. Northern State University has served its region for over a century. To some people, it appears that it is now serving a political cause. We hope they are wrong. A University is too valuable an asset to waste on partisan causes.