CSU faculty receive email urging discretion on political talk

Christina Cocca

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An email sent from CSUN Provost Harry Hellenbrand urged faculty to refrain from using class time to discuss political matters.

The email sent on Sept. 26 said former CSU Chancellor Charles Reed asked Academic Affairs to remind faculty that “using the classroom to inform students about Proposition 30,” a ballot measure that will cut $250 million from the CSU budget if not passed, may cross the line of “inappropriate political advocacy.”

Reed’s office sent a request to every CSU campus asking the Academic Affairs departments to email a warning to all faculty members, according to Hellenbrand. The email encouraged faculty to refer to the CSU Handbook of Election Issues.

Hellenbrand said election season often warrants a reminder for professors to avoid political persuasion.

“Every two to four years, something like this comes up,” Hellenbrand said. “When we come to elections and propositions are on the table, we ask to what extent professors can raise these issues in class.”

Hellenbrand said of about 2,000 emails sent within the CSUN campus, he has heard reactions from “probably five or six people,” but some professors have not been shy to voice their opinions.

“It’s a little patronizing, and I would think my colleagues are sufficiently professional enough to know what’s appropriate and inappropriate in the classroom,” said Dr. Alan Buckley, political science professor.

He said professors should promote critical thinking to make sure students “don’t take teachers’ words as gospel.”

“I think it would be inappropriate for an instructor to say to vote a certain way,” Buckley said. “But in my political science class, that’s our topic, and we discuss the pros and cons so students can figure it out for themselves.”

Mayra Amezcua, senior liberal studies major and member of Students for Quality Education, said professors should not only be allowed to talk about propositions but also be encouraged to do so.

“At the end of the day, all of the students would be the ones benefitting from (Proposition 30) passing,” said Amezcua, 21. “Pros and cons of issues like this should be discussed, like what will happen if it does or does not pass.”

She added professors who discuss politics in class should “have intentions not to persuade but to inform” students.

“It’s not about a professor influencing voters; it’s more about educating students,” Amezcua said.

Esmi Careaga, senior communications major and political science minor, said she does not believe teachers should try to influence their students’ voting decisions.

“I think this email is just a reminder for teachers to not get mixed up in the politics,” said Careaga, 24. “(The CSU) is just trying to cover all of their bases to prevent any liability for problems, but they’re also censoring free speech in a sense.”

Hellenbrand admitted the line between a warning and censorship is “fuzzy,” but there is a “clear difference between informing and advocating.”

James Mitchell, political science professor, said he does not see the email as an attempt to censor professors and believes the administration is just trying to be careful.

“There are a lot of eyes on us, and there is already the perception among many that instruction in colleges and universities has a political bias,” he said.

The state and academic community has put trust in the professors to give quality education to college students, and “that trust should extend to our conduct unless we prove unfit,” Mitchell said.

The perception Mitchell referenced may be related to the recent allegations of a CSU Monterey Bay professor lobbying for Proposition 30 via email to students, which led to a lawsuit filed against the university Thursday by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

CSUN President Dianne Harrison, formerly CSU Monterey Bay’s president, said the administration might send another email to faculty reminding them not to use their campus emails for political discussion.

Harrison said when people lobby or politically advocate, they must make sure they do not cross the line of what is permissible and what is not. She added she has not seen the alleged email sent by the CSU Monterey Bay faculty member.

“I think this is unfortunate, because people are so passionate about these issues, but sometimes they forget there are rules,” Harrison said. “When elections are heated, everybody is watching what everybody is doing.”

To learn more about the propositions on the November ballot, students can read the California Voter Information Guide.