College Presidents Selling Out to Gov. Rick Snyder?

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Those of us who live in the United States are fortunate to live in a country in which we are all free to speak our minds, including with respect to the political candidates and causes we choose to support. This is America, and that is how it is supposed to work. (Theoretically, at least. Some citizens are certainly freer to be heard than others.)

However, for each of us, there is a difference between supporting and endorsing political causes and candidates as a private citizen and doing so as a representative of an institution. This difference is especially critical if the institution is publicly funded or financed with student tuition dollars or with the support of alumni or other donors or any or all of the above.

For example, if you are, say, the president of a college or university, and you are thinking of exercising your rights as a citizen to participate in a public way in the political process, you should probably keep in mind that you answer, as they used to say in the old Hebrew National hotdog commercials, to a higher authority, namely your students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

This topic is on my mind because recently my job-creator husband received an invitation to a campaign fundraiser to be held on Monday, November 11, on behalf of the governor of our fine state, the population of which deserves a lot better than Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MakeItStop), which is who we’ve got and who is in what appears to be an increasingly tight race for re-election next year. I am not sure how Mr. Alevei ended up on this particular mailing list, although job-creating business owner that he is, he has been known to end up on strange mailing lists before.

Anyway, the invitation includes a list of notables with whom, for a monetary contribution to an outfit name of “Rick Snyder for Michigan” (no link — deal with it), attendees can ostensibly schmooze. I was surprised to see that two such notables are presidents of local colleges: Kalamazoo College‘s Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and Kalamazoo Valley Community College‘s Marilyn Schlack, will be lending their considerable credibility to the Snyder campaign by appearing at the event on Monday, dubbed “NerdFest 2013.”

I would link here to news articles reporting on “NerdFest 2013,” but I can’t, because it turns out that there aren’t any, at least not so far. When I had occasion to mention “NerdFest” to a local reporter earlier today, she had not heard anything about it, even though the event is coming up just two days from now. There is nothing about it on Rick Snyder’s campaign website (like I said, no link) or on the site of the venue where it is being held. This invisibility is puzzling, since it seems to me that an event featuring the governor and a panel of prominent leaders in the arts, business, education, healthcare, and agriculture — what the invitation calls “Special Guest Panel Representatives” — would be newsworthy. The reporter I mentioned it to earlier this afternoon seemed to agree.

Not only is the event itself newsworthy, but so especially is the participation of the two college presidents. By agreeing to appear at a candidate’s fundraiser, and as you can see from the enlargement of the text below, it is clear from the invitation that this is not merely a conference of ideas but an actual campaign fundraising event, Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack appear essentially to be endorsing Gov. Snyder’s candidacy for re-election.

Now, that would be perfectly fine if they were doing so as private citizens, but they are not. They are identified in the invitation as presidents of their respective institutions (although it actually gets the name of Kalamazoo Valley Community College wrong), which is to say that the two women are participating specifically and deliberately as representatives of their respective institutions.

I have to wonder what the students, alumni, faculty, and staff of Kalamazoo College and KVCC might think about all this, or whether they even know about it. The apparent circumspection with which the event is being treated by the campaign (no press releases, no mention of the event on the campaign website) suggest that it is not public knowledge at this point.

According to the invitation, “This event is a gathering of the minds to discuss, debate, and dictate the direction of your group or industry for the future. Your support helps ensure that our great [sic] Governor helps Michigan stay on the path to success for another four years.” (Emphasis added.)

Now, my personal feelings about Gov. Snyder are fairly well known to regular readers of these pages, especially those who follow Michigan politics, and his many weaknesses and failings are also well documented by other members of the DKos community.

So it is no secret that in my view, Gov. Snyder and his cronies are among the last people on the planet Earth who should be in a position to dictate the direction of anything. The governor has shown himself to lack courage as well as any real leadership skill, traits that unfortunately lead him to resort to waffling or to flat-out dishonesty at times. He also seems to be rather a shady operator as well as something of an anti-democratic power-grabber, and he has proven over the course of his first (and I pray to God only) term to be particularly hostile to education, especially public education, whether we are talking about K-12 or higher ed, which he apparently thinks is overrated (except for people like him, apparently, since he’s had plenty).

Especially in that context, college presidents in this state ought to be among the very last people to allow themselves to be co-opted by the governor’s re-election campaign, especially since the candidate upon whom Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack are bestowing their considerable influence and public standing is doing everything he can to try to decimate public education in this state and to try to circumvent the democratic process.

And yet that is not really the context that matters. The issue is not that these highly respected local leaders are lending the esteem in which they are held in this community to support a candidate I don’t like. Rather, the issue is that they are using it to endorse a candidate at all.

As I said at the beginning of this diary, all individuals have the right to support the political causes and candidates of their choice. However, I have to question the appropriateness of college presidents agreeing to appear at a candidate’s fundraiser and thereby endorsing said candidate, not as private citizens but as representatives of their respective institutions. Click on the photos of the invitation so you can see the text in its entirety and see for yourself. There is no question but that this event is a political fundraiser on behalf of Gov. Snyder.

President Wilson-Oyelaran has a fine record in terms of her commitment to social justice and has more than earned her bona fides as an active proponent of diversity and inclusion, including in her role as the leader of a college that emphasizes service to others as integral to citizenship and intellectual growth. (And according to the K College web page, “Social Justice leadership is at the heart of a Kalamazoo College experience.”) It is likely to seem inexplicable to many of her colleagues and neighbors here in Kalamazoo (when they eventually find out about it) that she would either deliberately support Gov. Snyder’s re-election campaign or allow herself to be co-opted into appearing at a forum that perhaps was not clearly identified to her as a campaign event.

I know less about President Schlack’s background, although I do know that adjunct faculty at KVCC are treated quite abominably, even by the pitiful standards according to which most institutions, sadly, treat part-time faculty. One particularly egregious example is the delay of adjunct faculty paychecks, a situation that has occurred more than once at that institution. I also seem to remember some of President Schlack’s designees speaking publicly in a kind of astonishingly and appallingly tone deaf way in the wake of the most recent paycheck delays. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to the actions and words of college administrator, especially when those words are spoken to the press, the buck stops with the president.

In sum, the concerns here are not about whether individual citizens have the right to support the political causes and candidates of their choice. They absolutely do. The issue is whether it is appropriate for individuals entrusted with leading institutions of higher learning to participate — not as private citizens but as leaders and representatives of their respective institutions — ┬áin fundraising campaigns on behalf of candidates, causes, or parties. Whether it is their intent or not, the participation of Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack in Gov. Snyder’s fundraiser clearly suggests an endorsement of his campaign for re-election.

The issue is also not about any particular candidate whom they might choose to support, although it is certainly surprising that they would be willing to appear on behalf of a governor whose commitment to higher education and to public institutions in general is very much in question.

The real problem is with the endorsement of any candidate. The two presidents need to be cognizant of the message their endorsements of Gov. Snyder are likely to send to the students, alumni, faculty, and staff of their institutions as well as to the community that is home to both schools. Their endorsements are potentially highly divisive, and it is inexplicable that this somehow did not occur to Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack before they made the decision to participate in Gov. Snyder’s event.

I do have one positive note on which to close. As president of the faculty union at Western Michigan University, which like KVCC and K College is located in Kalamazoo, I don’t often have the opportunity to make public statements in support of our institutional leadership (which many of my colleagues and I find lacking in any number of ways), but I have to say that I really appreciate that WMU President John Dunn is not on the program for Gov. Snyder’s soiree on Monday night. He definitely made the right call this time.

It is astonishing that two other college presidents in Kalamazoo did not. If the organizers were less than transparent with them in making it clear that Monday’s “NerdFest” is in fact a campaign fundraiser, then shame on the organizers. But even if that is the case, critical thinking and due diligence are the stock in trade of higher education, which is something about which even college presidents might occasionally need reminding.

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