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President’s Perspective: Politically Correct
President’s Perspective: Politically Correct

When politics and the profession collide

By John Lippincott

During this U.S. presidential election year, we would do well to reflect upon the intersections between our political beliefs and our professional responsibilities as external representatives of our institutions.

Toward that end, I offer five questions below about political correctness for advancement teams to discuss in light of institutional values, governance, and policies. I have also provided my own perspective on each of these questions in an effort to clarify the issues and stimulate the conversation.

This column does not offer legal advice. Advancement officers should consult with their institutions' general counsel on any matter that creates even the appearance of political intervention. Among useful resources on this topic are an Internal Revenue Service frequently asked questions list and an American Council on Education white paper regarding limitations on political activity by nonprofit organizations.

Underlying the views I express below is the firm belief that the individual right to free speech, most especially political speech, is fundamental to a democratic society.

Q: Is it OK for the director of alumni relations to have a candidate's bumper sticker on her car, which she parks in a reserved spot in front of the alumni center?

In My Humble Opinion: At the heart of this question is not the alumni director's right as a private citizen to support a candidate but rather the degree to which her support might be interpreted as that of a university official. If the car is owned by the university, then the bumper sticker would be inappropriate. If it appears on a personal vehicle in a reserved university location, I would still argue that it is inadvisable given the potential for misunderstanding or because it would unnecessarily antagonize some alumni.

Q: Is it OK for the major gift officer in a private meeting with a donor to express support for a political candidate whom the donor also supports?

IMHO: The major gift officer is meeting with the donor in an official capacity. Therefore, his expression of support for or against a political candidate would be inappropriate, even in what might otherwise appear to be a private setting. While some might argue that such a conversation could help build trust with the donor, I would counter that most donors would appreciate knowing that the fundraiser observes appropriate professional boundaries.

Q: Is it OK for the public relations officer to grant permission for a candidate to film a television ad in front of a campus landmark?

IMHO: The basic rule of thumb here is that any opportunity afforded to one candidate should be afforded to all candidates. Moreover, activities that fall within the realm of voter education (e.g., candidate forums) constitute a valuable public service. However, making the campus available as a backdrop for ads could be subject to misinterpretation or even abuse, as it could be misconstrued as suggesting institutional support or endorsement of a particular candidate. With that in mind, institutions should develop explicit policies for ads filmed on campus (political or otherwise) and require written agreements with the advertiser. The appearance of staff in political ads, even as extras, strikes me as professionally inappropriate.

Q: Is it OK for the institutional president or board chair to be quoted in the local newspaper expressing support for a political candidate who would clearly be the best alternative for the institution?

IMHO: If they are to be quoted, the president and the board chair should explicitly state that they are expressing personal opinions and not speaking as representatives of the institution. Even then, I would advise the president against publicly endorsing a candidate, if only to avoid the risks of betting on the wrong horse or creating a possible appearance of institutional partisanship. When it comes to taking positions on political issues, as opposed to candidates, institutional leaders should do so with caution and with coaching to avoid appearing to favor a candidate with similar views or alienating key constituencies.

Q: Is it OK for the university to establish a formal policy that restricts staff members from expressing support for political candidates while they are on the job?

IMHO: I think having a staff policy on political activity is not only OK, it is essential. (CASE has a selection of sample policies on its website.) The specifics of that policy will need to be carefully developed with the institution's general counsel in light of prevailing laws and regulations and to ensure that the policy does not infringe on the fundamental right to free speech.

I strongly urge you to discuss these or similar questions with your advancement colleagues on campus. It is not important that you agree with me on these matters; it is important that you agree with each other and with your institutional leadership.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.




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