illinois ethics and politics

As you might have already heard, the University of Illinois recently told its faculty that they are not permitted to engage in political activity on campus, such as wearing candidate buttons, sporting bumper stickers, or attending rallies. As you can imagine, this hasn’t gone over well.

When I was an instructor at Illinois, I was forced every year to complete what was called an “ethics module,” or an on-line training course designed to make sure we state employees were being careful stewards of taxpayer money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the topics covered by the module tended to focus on the awarding of state contracts or the taking of bribes. A significant portion of the module also focused on forbidding us from using state property to engage in political activity.

I always understood this module as attempting to create the appearance of ethical behavior, rather than actually encouraging good conduct. Moreover, the scenarios presented in the module had little to do with the real ethical issues of university work, such as academic dishonesty, capricious grading, sexual harassment, or accommodating disabled students. Instead, the module focused on the sorts of violations with which Illinois politicians have had a long and illustrious history — corruption, graft, and using state resources for political gain.

So, I always saw the module as a public relations move that forced all state employees to pay the price for dirty politics. The recent bullshit at the University of Illinois seems to me an extension of this logic. Fortunately, the university has said that it won’t enforce the law in this case.

Meanwhile, though, the governor’s Office of Executive Inspector General is saying that the ban on political activity applies not only to university employees, but also to students. That’s right: according to the state government, students are not allowed to attend rallies or wear buttons, either.

These people obviously have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a university is. Yes, it is state property. But it is not the DMV.* The university is a place for the exchange of ideas and the creation of knowledge. It cannot serve that function while at the same time restricting free speech and academic freedom.

* Funny story: when I first moved to Illinois from California, I called my local DMV office to find out how to get a new license and register my car. The call went like this:

DMV: Secretary of State Jesse White’s office.
Me: Um, is this the DMV?
DMV: [sigh] Yes it is.
Me: Then why didn’t you just say that this is the DMV?

Okay, I didn’t say this last part, but I thought it. For a while, I was really confused by this exchange. Yes, the DMV was ultimately under the control of Illinois’ secretary of state, but I didn’t see why they couldn’t just say “Department of Motor Vehicles” when they answered the phone. Eventually I learned that Illinois politicians attach their names to absolutely everything they can. I assume this has something to do with increasing name recognition. But isn’t that a use of state resources for political gain?

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