U refrains from censuring arrested professors

A University official sent a message to employees encouraging “vigorous, but respectful, debate.”

by Libby George

Professors receiving fellowships, grants and awards for their research undoubtedly bring the University publicity that bolsters its image.

But when they instead receive misdemeanor charges for protesting the war in Iraq, the image is not necessarily as helpful.

University professors who were recently arrested during protests, however, said they have received no official discouragement from the administration.

Katy Gray Brown, a General College professor arrested and charged with a misdemeanor April 2 while protesting at Alliant Techsystems in Edina, Minn., said she thinks the University is a place where involved citizenship is encouraged.

“The administration has responded very professionally (to student protesters) to encourage free speech,” Gray Brown said.

Gray Brown said the only University feedback she has gotten for her own protest activities has been from colleagues, but said she thinks the administration would support faculty protesters as well.

“I can’t imagine the University ever mentioning or even implying that faculty shouldn’t take action to protest if they feel the need to do so,” Gray Brown said.

Although administrators declined to comment on the issue, Executive Vice President and Provost Christine Maziar sent an e-mail to faculty and deans saying, “I encourage all of us, faculty, staff and administration, to help create a climate supportive of vigorous, but respectful, debate and discussion.”

University President Robert Bruininks also sent an e-mail to the entire University community encouraging “the freedom to engage in passionate dialogue.”

View from the Capitol

Despite the University’s free speech encouragement, Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, said that it is possible not everyone at the Legislature would view these actions as favorably.

“It does put a foul taste in the mouths of some legislators who do not agree with that,” Stang said.

He added that while he supports free speech, this is not the kind of attention the University should want “at a time when you are making cuts and everyone is a target.”

University lobbyist Donna Peterson said she has not seen any repercussions at the Legislature.

“If there was a concern, someone would have contacted me, and no one has contacted me,” Peterson said.

In fact, Peterson was completely unaware of the arrests, but she said the University would support the faculty members’ actions.

“They have a right to (protest) just as they have a right to vote,” she said.

Faculty support

Faculty Affairs Committee Chairman John Fossum said his committee has taken no position on protest activities, but he said faculty and staff protesting in their free time should not reflect on the University.

“I don’t believe they’re representing the University. They’re representing themselves,” Fossum said.

However, Fossum said that in the past, faculty members’ actions have drawn political attention.

During the Vietnam war, Mulford Sibley, a political science professor who protested on University Avenue, attracted attention from the Legislature.

“The Legislature really leaned on the University to fire him and end his tenure,” Fossum said. In the end, the University refused to do so.

General College professor Mark Pedelty – who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for protesting March 26 – said his actions do impact the University.

“I think all of our actions reflect on the University,” Pedelty said.

He added that protest actions reflect on the University just as people receiving government money for research does.

Pedelty said, however, he had no concerns about the Legislature reducing University funding.

He added that rather than detracting from his work as a professor, his actions make him a more complete scholar.

“My civic engagement helps make me a more complete scholar,” Pedelty said. “I believe that it is crucial that we not only work in our disciplines but also work as public scholars.”

In the end, Fossum said, free speech actions are taken at the individual’s discretion.

“It’s basically an individual’s right to exercise free speech, but they have to be ready to face the consequences,” he said.

He added the University would never reprimand a “petty misdemeanor” charge but would have issues with a felony.