ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Speaking of Trustees

April 17, 2005 by ACTA

Earlier this month, a group of Illinois State University students submitted a petition to Governor Rod Blagojevich asking him not to reappoint ISU alumnus and prominent businessman Jay D. Bergman to the Board of Trustees. Bergman runs Petco Petroleum Company; The ISU Student Environmental Action Coalition disapproves of the company's checkered environmental record, and specifically objects to how Petco Petroleum has handled recent conflicts with state regulators--currently, Petco is fighting an environmental lawsuit filed against the company by the Illinois attorney general. Bergman's term as trustee expired in January.

When Bergman learned of the petition, he dismissed it as the product of the group's "radical, leftist agenda," observing that "From what I understand, they are so far to the left they make Jane Fonda look like Ronald Reagan." That's when the real trouble started. ISU president Al Bowman publicly criticized Bergman for his remarks, stating that Bergman's comments showed disrespect for ISU's goal of encouraging student civic engagement; the ISU Academic Senate has decided first to study Bergman's remarks and then to issue a statement in response. According to a piece in the local Pantagraph, Bergman's comments have launched a debate about whether trustees have an obligation to encourage and preserve the free expression of students; the paper quotes foreign language professor and faculty senator Jim Reid as saying, "We need to ask whether a trustee has a responsibility to encourage academic freedom." Other critics of Bergman's remark have understood him as disrespecting the First Amendment rights of students, and, more basically, of showing a lamentable lack of civility. Bergman has not apologized for his remarks, and has noted that while he respects the rights of students to express their opinions, he also has the right to express himself freely.

At issue in this case is not merely whether trustees may criticize the actions of politicized student groups--who are speaking for themselves and not for the school they attend--but whether, too, trustees are expected to align their own beliefs, or at least their public portrayal of them, with the institution's own political agendas. ISU formally espouses as one of its core values the goal of instilling in its students a sense of environmental stewardship; in this instance, that mission is clashing with the professional pursuits of one of its exceptionally well-heeled trustees (Bergman has pledged nearly half a million dollars to ISU for a VIP visitors' center). One might also say that both ISU's environmental mission and its goal of encouraging student activism clash with the university's ethical obligation, as a federally funded institution, not to impose political stances or activist agendas on its student body. While Bergman could certainly have been more civil, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this situation thus far is the apparent inability of ISU administrators, faculty, and students to see the issues clearly.

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