With less than one month until the November general election, nearly everyone has something to say about it. But when professors and universities start advocating in favor of Proposition 30 to their students, they might be breaking the law.
California state law controls how much professors can actively support political ideas in class and has prompted California State University (CSU) administrators to remind professors about what they can and cannot say.
One reason universities might be talking politics this election season is because of Proposition 30, an increase to upper-class income tax rates and the state sales tax. If the proposition fails, Gov. Jerry Brown has said he will cut the CSU budget by $250 million.
But in an email dated Sept. 26 from CSU Chancellor Charles Reed to university presidents, he told the universities that using the classroom to inform students how politics, specifically Proposition 30, will impact the CSU is “not appropriate.”
California State University, Long Beach President F. King Alexander recently said at a press conference that the university will cut 2,000 classes if Proposition 30 fails, according to an article in the Daily 49er student newspaper. Cal Poly has made no such similar “doomsday” announcement, but Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has repeatedly said he will vote for Proposition 30 in November.
Though CSU officials have hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the passage of this proposition, Reed’s neutral policy stems from a California law which states,“It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity.”
This includes clear violations, such as using money and vehicles, CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp said. But it also leaves some things up for debate, such as what professors can discuss in their classrooms, and what conversations professors can have with students when they ask about political issues.
Though she said she is no expert on the law, Provost Kathleen Enz Finken, who came to Cal Poly earlier this year, said she understands professors need to be cautious when talking politics with students.
“To have a casual conversation about the issues is appropriate,” she said. “But to use class time and use classes to advocate your opinion is not appropriate.”
Along with Enz Finken, local California Faculty Association (CFA) President Glen Thorncroft said he understands the relationship between professors and politics is not black-and-white.
On one side, Thorncroft said he understands professors are viewed as authority figures in classrooms and their opinions can weigh heavily on their students. But there are situations, he said, in which he believes it is appropriate to discuss politics within the classroom.
Though Thorncroft doesn’t bring up politics in his mechanical engineering classes, he said he could see professors in other disciplines discussing political material in an informational manner.
“We’re educators, so why shouldn’t we be educating the students on these issues?” Thorncroft said. “I don’t discuss politics in the classroom, personally. If students ask, that’s a different issue, because that’s an exchange of ideas.”
Many of those ideas today relate to Proposition 30, which will have a direct impact on the professors and students discussing it. But is the CSU, whose Board of Trustees has endorsed the measure, pushing the boundaries of what is allowed under state law? How can professors and administrators decide what is appropriate and what is advocating for a political campaign?
The law itself does not have the answers to those questions. It simply states “land, buildings, facilities, funds, equipment, supplies, telephones, computers, vehicles, travel and state-compensated time” are all state resources that cannot be used for campaign activity, but does not address how these fit in the mission of a public university to create informed citizens.
The CSU is sending what it calls an “informational notice” to applicants this fall. Instead of the usual letter thanking prospective students for their interest, the notice tells them that the CSU will hold all applications until the end of November. If the proposition fails, according to the notice, the CSU will admit fewer students than if it passes.
Critics say the CSU is attempting to secure votes for Proposition 30 by threatening college applicants, but the CSU maintains the letter is purely informational and for the applicants’ benefit.
“Some people are under the impression that because people submitted application to Campus A, you need to vote for Proposition 30,” Uhlenkamp said. “And that’s not true.”
Along with the CSU Board of Trustees, the CFA has also endorsed the proposition. Thorncroft led local faculty union members in placing calls to 200 Cal Poly CFA members earlier this month to encourage them to vote yes on the proposition.
The union’s phone bank was legal under state law, Thorncroft said, because the members placing the calls used no state resources to do so. Thorncroft said the union even offered to pay Cal Poly to rent the time they used the empty classroom, though did not end up paying for the space.
Though Thorncroft aimed to educate faculty about Proposition 30 through the phone bank, he said he does not want to tell them how to provide information to students during class. That, he said, is a choice each instructor has a right to make on their own.
“You don’t want faculty to have to teach a class and be constantly thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t discuss this. I have to filter everything I say because I have to be so careful of what I say.’ It sort of goes against the academic environment,” Thorncroft said. “I can see that this is hotly debated, and it should be hotly debated, because academic freedom is something that should be on the forefront of faculty’s mind.”
CFA singled out for political classroom chats
The California Faculty Association came under fire by CSU Chancellor Charles Reed in a letter to university presidents that called on campuses to stop “inappropriate political advocacy” during class time.
The letter, which was provided to Mustang Daily by Cal Poly’s CFA Chapter President Glen Thorncroft, cited reports that CFA members had recommended faculty dismiss class five minutes early, then use the rest of class to distribute information about the CFA-endorsed Proposition 30, including a PowerPoint, flyers and a video.
“Your local Academic Affairs Offices need to issue a clear directive to all faculty that use of the classroom to inform students about Proposition 30 and its impact on CSU is not appropriate,” Reed wrote in the letter.
Thorncroft distributed some of this information to CFA members at Cal Poly less than one week before Reed sent the email to presidents.
In an email to members, Thorncroft said the information came from the union in order to “encourage classroom presentations.” Thorncroft told Mustang Daily this was not an attempt to have professors conduct presentations in the classroom, and he was not aware of any professors who had done so.
“I knew that there was a range of opinions on where and when political speech was appropriate,” Thorncroft said. “Because I know I represent a diverse group of faculty, I think faculty are completely capable of making their own decisions on what is appropriate to say in the classroom.”