Faculty calls for university to clarify political activity policy

Faculty Affairs Committee is concerned by Gender Action Group, Pink Elephants recent interaction with general counsel


Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Hannah Denham

The Faculty Affairs Committee is pushing back after the university reprimanded two student groups for political activity general counsel says threatened its nonprofit status.

The year-old group of elected faculty representatives said the committee has concerns over how general counsel’s interpretation of the IRS political activity policy will impact academic freedom. The committee took up the issue with university provost Marc Conner after a Nov. 4 Ring-tum Phi story, “University cracks down on student organizations to protect nonprofit status.”

Two feminist student organizations, Gender Action Group and the Pink Elephants, were told they couldn’t use university property or the email system for an Equal Rights Amendment truck event and a post-election victory party for Virginia House of Delegates member Ronnie Campbell (R).

Associate General Counsel Jana Shearer cited the university’s Statement Concerning Political Activity to address the role of students protecting its 501(c)(3) status, which bars any institutional resources be used by political candidates and political campaigns.

“While all members of the community are free to engage in political campaign activity in their individual capacities, no members of the community, including students, are permitted to use university resources in connection with or in support of such political campaign activity,” Shearer said in an email.

Chair Alison Bell, who is an anthropology professor and ‘91 alum, shared the official FAC position, dated Jan. 20, 2020, with the Ring-tum Phi. Other FAC members include Colin Reid, J.D. King, Gene McCabe, Toni Locy, Doug Rendleman, Arthur Goldsmith, Paul Gregory and three professors on leave: Ricardo Wilson, Kishanthi Vinayagamoorthy and Mikki Brock.

“Faculty Affairs recognizes the Phi as a key organ of communication in our campus community,” the memo reads. “We are concerned that University administration and counsel have made no public effort to dispel the apparent fear and confusion generated by their published comments. This silence threatens our educational values and mission, infringes on academic freedom, has a chilling effect on students, and foments confusion in our intellectual community.”

The memo lists the following positions:

  • Issue advocacy is not campaign intervention.
  • Inviting speakers to campus does not imply endorsing their views.
  • Student groups do not speak on behalf of the university in political campaigns.
  • Counsel’s and the administration’s handling of the ERA issue is inconsistent with our stated institutional commitment to academic freedom.

“Intellectual freedom is something that should definitely be shared with members of faculty, students as well. It shouldn’t just be a top-down declaration,” Bell said.

FAC, minus two members, met with Conner on Friday, Jan. 17 to voice their concerns.

“We talked about the policies guiding the complex questions of what kinds of political speakers can be brought to campus according to federal law,” Conner said. “It was a detailed and helpful discussion.”

FAC brought up the provost’s office’s affirmation of freedom of expression, as well as statements by the University of Chicago and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which were adopted by the Washington and Lee University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate in December 2015.

“The interpretation of counsel was an inconsistent application of our own policies and inconsistent with the intentions of protection for nonprofits,” Bell said. “Our own policies and the policies that our website cite as models, they all say, ‘We’re not in the business of filtering reality for students. We are in the business of bringing a variety of students and some of them are going to be disagreeable for some people. And that’s what education is.”

But Conner said that these standards differ from the IRS code.

“This recommendation is consistent with the Provost’s Office’s adopted standards regarding freedom of expression,” Conner said in an email. “Freedom of expression guides the rights of the community to speak on matters of interest; the [general counsel] guidance relates to events that might have a campaign intervention element. It’s important to bear in mind that while these two areas overlap, they are not the same thing.”

Bell said that FAC holds “very different views” than the provost and general counsel’s recommendation that the ERA #IScream4Equality advertising and event itself crossed the line from advocacy to campaign intervention.

“Our concern is that the Pink Elephants and Gender Action Group were singled out and had not been subjected to the same standard applied uniformly by the university,” she said. “Students didn’t do anything wrong and general counsel and university didn’t reach out to correct this view. It has created a sense of fear that ‘I have to be careful to not get in trouble by having my organization explore a potentially partisan issue.’”

Shearer said the Office of General Counsel is now evaluating better ways to communicate its policies with the Washington and Lee campus because of the recent issues.

“In light of the recent questions raised, the Office of General Counsel is in the process of evaluating its current guidance and FAQs to determine if there is more information that we can provide to help members of the community navigate these complicated issues,” Shearer said. “Issues regarding political campaign activity, issue advocacy, and campaign intervention are not black and white, and it would be impossible to have a policy or guidance that addresses every situation that may arise.”

Bell said she’s concerned the political activity policy hasn’t been applied evenly to student groups and speakers brought to campus.

“If this is the issue they’re standing by, is it going to be universally or selectively applied?” Bell said. “Either way, that’s pretty scary.”

She’s spearheading Hostile Terrain 94, a global pop-up art exhibition that looks at undocumented migration. When Bell read about general counsel’s response to the ERA bus, she wondered if her project would strike the same concern — even though she sees both as issue advocacy. 

“I was concerned that they would try to crack down, just as they cracked down on these student groups,” Bell said. “They responded that the ERA issue had crossed the line from advocacy to campaign intervention. It’s not clear to me how it did that, and Faculty Affairs does not agree with that.”

Bell graduated from Washington and Lee in 1991, taught as an adjunct professor between 1996 and 1999 and has taught full time since 2002. She was elected as chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee when it first formed in December 2018.

Correction: An earlier version of the story listed an incorrect year that Alison Bell began teaching as an adjunct professor. The story has been updated to list the correct year, as well as to include the name of a professor who is serving on FAC in place of a member currently on leave.