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Professors at the University of Illinois are barred from displaying political stickers, pins or other accessories that express their political views.
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I have an Obama for President button in my drawer, but if I put it on, I could lose my job. The University of Illinois, where I work, has told its employees that election buttons on their lapels or bumper stickers visible in university parking lots are forbidden. Basically, professors are not allowed to express their political opinions on campus.
Yet, there was a time in the 1960s, when no self-respecting professor would have an office door that wasn't plastered with political slogans or cartoons. "Get us out of Vietnam" or "Equal pay for women" were not just considered statements of one's own beliefs, but clarion calls of a generation's convictions.
Then came the culture wars. Suddenly universities were worried about being "too political." Why couldn't professors just teach the classics without injecting all this political claptrap about race, class, gender and all the rest?
Now we are in an era in which having an opinion in the university has become grounds for dismissal — a political misuse of taxpayer monies. That ruling might be appropriate for state employees who work in the DMV, but isn't there a difference when it comes to professors? After all, we are paid to ... profess. It's our job to have opinions and to teach students values and beliefs based on a history of rigorous thinking.
The danger of the Illinois ruling isn't so much that you have to peel off your McCain bumper sticker, it's the chilling effect in the classroom and the corridors. What should I do now about teaching a class about Oliver Stone's new movie W or Michael Moore's Sicko? Do I have to duct tape my mouth if the discussion inevitably veers toward the current election and health care? Or what to do in a class on Macbeth if students want to discuss the abuse of power by a national leader?
The greatest minds of the past taught courses, they didn't muzzle themselves. And the great thing about the university is that in some other classroom a completely opposite opinion can be espoused. Students listen, handle the discrepancies and make up their own minds. If the state wants professors to play dumb about their political opinion, it might just end up dumbing down the students in the classroom as well.