At the University of Iowa, the College Republicans sent an email this week to the entire college community about an event they termed the "Conservative Coming Out Week." Planned events include an "Animal Rights BBQ" and an opportunity for students to "pick up your Doctors' Notice to miss class for 'sick of being stressed', just like the Wisconsin public employees during the union protests."
No doubt this email was intended to be provocative. But few expected this: Ellen Lewin, a professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women's & Sexuality Studies, wrote back: "FUCK YOU, REPUBLICANS."
Natalie Ginty, Chairwoman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, wrote in an email to one of Lewin's supervisors:
We understand that as a faculty member she has the right to express her political opinion, but by leaving her credentials at the bottom of the email she was representing the University of Iowa, not herself alone.
In response, Lewin issued something of an apology on Monday, where she wrote:
I admit the language was inappropriate, and apologize for any affront to anyone's delicate sensibilities. I would really appreciate your not sending blanket emails to everyone on campus, especially in these difficult times.
As though that apology was not scant enough, the following day Lewin appeared to get more and more incensed over the issue, and tempered her apology even further on Tuesday:
I should note that several things in the original message were extremely offensive, nearly rising to the level of obscenity. Despite the Republicans' general disdain for LGBT rights you called your upcoming event "conservative coming out day," appropriating the language of the LGBT right movement. Your reference to the Wisconsin protests suggested that they were frivolous attempts to avoid work. And the "Animal Rights BBQ" is extremely insensitive to those who consider animal rights an important cause. Then, in the email that Ms. Ginty sent complaining about my language, she referred to me as Ellen, not Professor Lewin, which is the correct way for a student to address a faculty member, or indeed, for anyone to refer to an adult with whom they are not acquainted. I do apologize for my intemperate language, but the message you all sent out was extremely disturbing and offensive.
While Lewin makes several good points regarding why the College Republicans' email got under her skin, it is of course unacceptable for a professor to curse out students via mass email. It's a shame for Levin that her original response to the mass email was not the email above. After the University's president issued a statement condemning "intolerant and disrespectful discord," Lewin conceded by emailing the College Republicans' faculty advisor: "I have been sufficiently chastened by this incident that I can assure you it will not happen again."
Again, not so much an apology. While one sympathizes with Lewin because of the insensitivity of the College Republican's original mass email, she has revealed herself to be just as grumpy about being censored as they, which is not surprising, considering that college professors are known to zealously guard their freedom of speech.
Responses to the exchange have been divided, no doubt, because the email exchange brings up a litany of issues regarding not merely proper decorum, but freedom of speech and censure at a public university. While several people, including a former student, praised Lewin for having "the courage to say exactly what we’ve all been thinking," others have questioned whether this is appropriate for a state employee. The Iowa City Press Citizen posts the following email Lewin received:
“It is pathetic that a taxpayer supported employee abuses the privilege of your position,” an email signed by Sarah Ellen Tucker said. “You are an excellent argument for the abolishment of the tenured professor. You are not a positive example to those students who truly wish to learn. Rather, you are an aging, bloated tick on the Iowa taxpayer. What on earth could you do to support yourself in the real world??? What a miserable, shallow fraud you are. Resign.”
Tenured professors like Lewin enjoy a significant amount of leeway, although it appears that the University of Iowa may be pursuing the matter further. According to the Press-Citizen, one email showed that the UI associate provost for faculty requested a meeting with Lewin to discuss the incident.
“It is far too early in the process to speculate about what action the university may or may not take,” said a spokesperson for the university.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.