A description of Donald Trump’s presidency in a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor’s course syllabus has set off the latest debate over academic freedom and political bias on university campuses.
In his course description, political science professor Kenneth Mayer terms the Trump presidency the most “unconventional presidency in American history, with a president who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behavior that have structured the office since George Washington.”
He continues by saying that Trump supporters “rejoice in his contempt for what they insist is a corrupt D.C. establishment. If elites are against it, Trump’s supporters are for it.”
McKenna Collins, a senior studying communication arts who signed up for “The American Presidency” class, said the description left her feeling intimidated and excluded. She shared her discontent on Facebook, attracting national attention and more than 400 shares of her post.
“It really sets a tone for a negative, biased semester before we, as students, even set foot in the classroom,” Collins said.
The attention prompted Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, to write a letter to Mayer, copied to the UW System Board of Regents, System President Ray Cross, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and several other legislative committees.
Murphy, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, said that although he is an advocate for academic freedom, he was shocked by the “politically polarized characterization of the Trump presidency” used in the syllabus.
“Students who identify as Trump supporters will be encouraged to parrot liberal views that you clearly sympathize with or remain silent in an attempt to mask their conservative opinions,” Murphy wrote.
Murphy, who in 2016 criticized UW-Madison for adding a course called “The Problem of Whiteness,” called for Mayer to invite a member of the Trump administration to speak with his students.
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Murphy’s letter set off a backlash, saying it amounted to an infringement on the academic freedom of professors.
“He has no business censoring legitimate speech on campus,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, tweeted. She and 14 Wisconsin Assembly members responded with a letter to Blank in support of Mayer.
Taylor’s letter advocates for freedom of speech and the rights of students to attend courses on a public campus that are not edited by state lawmakers who may disagree with the professor’s content.
“Attempting to silence professors who are challenging students to learn and grow as independent, critical thinkers stifles academic freedom and stunts the academic experience of our young adults,” the letter says.
Taylor said she was alarmed that Murphy accuses Mayer of being biased based solely on the content of the syllabus, which she thought “accurately summed up both the praise and the criticism of the current president.”
Among readings listed on the syllabus: “What Trump Got Right About American Democracy,” by Kevin Baker; “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency,” by Jack Goldsmith; and “Declaring an Emergency to Build a Border Wall: The Statutory Arguments,” by Margaret Taylor.
College Republicans back professor
Campus organizations also came out in support of Mayer, including the College Republicans of UW-Madison. The group released a statement stating that multiple board members have had Mayer as a professor and “found him to be an intellectually engaging professor that treats conservatives fairly.”
PROFS, a faculty advocacy group, condemned Murphy’s statement.
“It could have a chilling effect on the future faculty members’ willingness to speak freely and openly about controversial topics of the day,” the PROFS statement said.
Terry Warfield, a UW-Madison business professor and member of the PROFS Steering Committee, said all courses taught at UW-Madison go through checks and balances to ensure they adhere to academic standards.
“We need to be careful that we allow diverse perspectives to be presented,” Warfield said.
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Collins, who appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” said she has been involved with both the College Republicans and College Democrats on campus. She won Miss Wisconsin 2017 with a platform promoting civil discourse. She said she met with professor Mayer and the dean of students.
“He assured me that he will not bring bias into the classroom,” Collins said. “But he refused to acknowledge that the language he used was wrong.”
Collins said she considers this an ongoing issue.
“I don’t think I will be satisfied until people realize this kind of language is inappropriate,” Collins said.
Mayer, a tenured professor, is declining to be interviewed on the topic, said Meredith McGlone, director of news and media relations for UW-Madison.
McGlone said Mayer is an award-winning scholar who leaves his political opinions at the door and encourages his students to think objectively.
“Professor Mayer updates the syllabus each time the course is offered to reflect current issues and contested points,” McGlone said. For example, Mayer used a similar approach when he taught the class focusing on President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment proceedings.