Campaigning in the Classroom

Last month, distinguished Ohio State English professor Brian McHale sent out the following email to colleagues:


I’ve been in touch with a couple of campus organizers for the Obama campaign, who have asked me to pass along to all of you a request for access to your classes in the next few weeks. If you were willing, they would send along a volunteer to make a pitch to your students about registering to vote. This would involve five minutes or less of class time, at the beginning or end of class (whichever you preferred), and the volunteer could make him/herself available after the end of class to sign up students who wanted to register on the spot.

If you were willing, the volunteers could also take a couple of extra minutes to see whether they could interest any of your students in volunteering for the Obama campaign themselves. If you weren’t comfortable with this, however, you’d only need to say so, and the volunteer would limit his/her presentation to voter registration, and leave the recruitment pitch out; it would be your call.

I don’t need to tell you that voter registration is absolutely the key to this election, not least of all in the state of Ohio.

(I don’t need to tell you this because it has been made so manifestly plain by those who have been doing their best in several states, including ours, to limit access to the polls in various ways.) I hope you can see your way to helping bump up the voter registration and turnout among this key constituency–our students.

The easiest way to arrange for volunteers to visit your classrooms is to contact Natalie Raps or Matt Caffrey directly: [address removed] and [address removed]. Alternatively, you could contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with them. Either way, please do it!

Democracy: love it or lose it.

Peter Wood reproduces the entire message at the Chronicle of Higher Education and adds that Caffrey and Raps belong to the official Obama campaign in Ohio.   

Once the email went public, the legal counsel at Ohio State issued a statement asserting that “Simply put, partisan political discussions may not be sponsored by university employees on the Ohio State campus. I urge you to refer to the guidelines regarding political activity by employees of the university.” No professor should bring “political organizers into our classroom.” 

Once again, as with the earlier case of “tenured incognizance,” there is no need to debate the matter. The impropriety of bringing Obama campaign staff into a classroom, even under the guise of a non-partisan registration session, is beyond question. Not to the professor, though, and this is the remarkable thing about the whole story. In the Lantern piece, we read that McHale did not believe he did anything wrong. 

I believe him. If he were disingenuous here, then he would have been wary enough not to put his recommendations down in writing and send them out to fellow professors. Apparently, he really didn’t know that having a couple of Obama staffers address his students, a captive audience, went way over the line into partisanship. The argument that students had the right to opt out of hearing about joining the Obama team doesn’t pass the smile test. To believe that it lifted pressure from the students contradicts both common sense and leftist beliefs which say that power operates subtly and covertly, beneath the guise of institutional practices.

McHale is a chaired professor who has written extensively about postmodernism and theory. It is amazing–and exasperating–that such a sophisticated analyst of text and power should become so callow and obtuse when real power is at stake. For conservative reformers, it is one thing to combat deliberate strategies of indoctrination on campus, but contesting actors incognizant of their own malfeasance is a whole other chore.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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