Northern Valley Beacon

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Sunday, October 02, 2005


Has NSU become a party school?

During the NSU homecoming this weekend, astute alumni kept asking if the Republican Party is exercising a proprietorship over the univeristy. The occasion this time is that the NSU Gypsy Days were listed on the South Dakota Republican Party website's calendar of events--as if Gypsy Days is a party function.

With tragic encounters with alcohol of college students,making the news in the upper Midwest, some unfortunate experiences at Northern come to mind regarding non-political partying (at least we think it is non-political). NSU has distinguished itself in recents years by its decline in enrollments. On the anecdotal level, we hear many parents and students who do not hold NSU in high regard. The partying and deaths that have occured on campus are part of the perception. To reverse the decline in enrollments, NSU has recruited students from Puerto Rico and South Korea. However, that does not explain why NSU raises such a negative response from some people in the region in which it has been the major cultural and educational resource.

As a professor, I was aware of the attitudes. I had high school counselors tell me that they would not recommend the college to their better students because an anti-academic, anti-intellectual attitude seemed to be the prevailing one on campus. The counselors were very specific in citing the reasons for their recommendations. In general they said they could not recommend a school to the intellectually talented and the studious where those qualities would be ridiculed and held in contempt. Overt ridicule and discrimination against serious students was, in fact, something I had to deal with as a faculty member at times.

Some of the criticisms against NSU, however, are not valid. Some students from better high schools complain that their college courses are mere repetitions of material covered in high school, and sometimes the courses do not carry them as far as their high school courses. A school that admits students from small high schools with very limited resources often has to offer basic courses to provide the students a chance to succeed and to reach a competitive point by graduation. The problem there is not that the university is dummying-down the curriculum, but that it is not placing students with advanced standing in courses appropriate to their accomplishments. NSU's mission has always been to provide students with an opportunity to be competitive with students from the more ostentatious schools. At some times and in some areas of study, it has done that remarkably well.

Northern's main problem is that it has adhered to the design of the Board of Regents, which in the past quarter century has been guided more by poltically-appointed bean-counters and people with notional attitudes about how higher education works. It has not been shaped by educators who know their fields, know what fellow universities are doing, and know how to make students competitive in their fields. The Regents' agenda for NSU has not been good for the university or the people it serves. And their agenda is a reflection of the political party they are affiliated with, not an implementation of sound and effective higher education.

In that context, the listing of the Gypsy Day Parade as an event of interest to the South Dakota Republican Party takes on overtones of proprietorship of the university. The events calendar also lists the Dakota Wesleyan University homecoming--a place with Democratic ties. But Dakota Wesleyan is a private university that operates under a different premise than do the public universities in the state.

The Gypsy Day listing causes comment among alumni because of the context of political activity emanating from the NSU campus.

Most prominent is that the two professors who comprise the political science department are part of the blog, South Dakota Politics, which is notorious for its mean and nasty ad hominem attacks on people who take issue with them. Furthermore, they are given to self-preening crowing and shameless ego-inflation on their blog, like annoying bantam roosters, about their faculty positions and their special insights. According to an e-mail sent me, one of them bragged about going to an academic conference on blogging and identifying himself as a contributor to the blog that knocked Tom Daschle out of office.

No one questions the right of faculty members to voice their personal opinions and to engage in political activity on their own time and with their own resources. However, the self-preening egotism displayed and the utter scurrility of their personal attacks does call into question the probity of their conduct as professors and casts the pall of a petty and vicious partisanship over the institution.

So, when the public relations director of the institution is the main speaker at Republican events and lists the NSU homecoming as a Republican event, people have sufficient reason to question if the Republican Party has assumed proprietorship over the university.

There is more. A former Janklow staff member and director of the South Dakota Right-To-Life group has been hired on the staff of the NSU foundation. The head basketball coach acted as master of ceremonies at the county Lincoln Day dinner. A musical group led by a professor who expressed a particularly belligerent attitude against Democrats provided the entertainment for the Lincoln Day dinner.

There are many faculty at NSU who incline toward the Democratic Party or independent status. But they are overshadowed. And constituents of NSU have more than sufficient reason to ask if the Republican Party is assuming proprietorship over NSU. It is a question that has great bearing on enrollments and donations to the college foundation.

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Respectfully, I've got to disagree with your analysis that there are sinister overtones to the SDGOP listing the NSU Gypsy Days Parade.

Having walked them with several candidates over the years, University homecomings are noteworthy events by political types and politicians OF BOTH PARTIES. Not just us GOP'ers.

Just like Willie Sutton's analysis of why he robbed banks - "because that's there the money is", that's why people from both political parties go to university homecoming parades to be seen in the crowd, or to walk in the parades - "because that's where the people are."

Politicians know they aren't going to claim the crowd for their own party. They're just out to improve their own personal identification with the voting public.
I agree with all you say, PP. I think part of the excitement of a campus is having political candidates come to universities to meet people and discuss issues. On your blog I have indicated that my concern is the number of faculty and staff who use their identities with NSU to engage in overt poltical activity beyond the range of free speech.
As opposed to the USD president running for Governor on the Democratic ticket? And having the president of SDSU as one of his BIG campaign donors?

Regarding my example, I'm sure it cuts both ways, but where should the line be drawn?

Good food for thought.
If I am not mistaken, the president of USD had to take a leave-of-absence to run for governor. I was not aware that the president of SDSU was a big donor, but I would not have difficulty with that as long as it was clear that her support was personal and did not implicate her university.

As you have ideas about what represents the goals of your party, of which I was once a member, I have some, also, about the candidacy of the USD president. When the president of NSU sponsored one of the kickoff events for a Tim Johnson campaign in 1996, it put Tim at risk. As an old campaigner, you are fully aware of how some support can be a tremendous detraction.

My line is drawn at the point when university resources appear to be enlisted into campaigns. But I am of the old school which believed that one's political passions could be made known but kept absoutely divorced from one's faculty position and duties. I guess we made a huge distinction between our individual preferences and our collective duties about not letting them be determinants of our approaches to teaching, scholarship, and service.

You raise the issue in a manner that encourages and permits discussion, and that, after all, is the higher purpose of politics.
If we continue to stifle dissenting opinions in our colleges and universities, as the current administration promotes, we will find ourselves losing ground in the same way that the Arab nations did 3 or 4 hundred years ago.

s the conservatives/fundamentalists became more powerful and stifled dissent and competing opinions, the intellectual capabilities declined. Those nations used to be the homes of fine, challenging and respected universities.

Now, in the 21st century, they are just beginning to recover from those losses. Having a political and educational system dominated by one party works to the detriment of every American and every South Dakotan.
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