The University of Maine System board of trustees is considering a new policy governing faculty involvement in legislative and political affairs that some professors fear may inhibit their ability to express their views on matters that fall under their field of expertise.

Trustees will discuss the so-called “Institutional Authority on Political Matters” policy at their Jan. 28 meeting in Orono. Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the university system, said the board is not expected to vote on the proposal at that meeting.

Under the proposal, which Demerrit said is still being refined, all statewide legislative advocacy must be coordinated through the Chancellor’s Office – specifically the Office of Community and Government Relations.

Employees who do not coordinate with the Chancellor’s Office are allowed to express views on legislative or political matters, provided they make their audience aware that the views are their own and do not represent those of the university system, according to a draft version of the policy presented to the trustees at their November meeting.

The policy, if adopted, would prohibit university employees from engaging in political activity during work time, defined as time spent on university property, time spent dealing with campus e-mail or office equipment, and time on university-issued cellphones.

It also would prohibit employees from using university class time or any institution-sponsored program to endorse or oppose any partisan political candidate.

Despite assurances from university system officials that the proposed policy would not prohibit faculty and staff from expressing their views and engaging in the political process – provided they make it clear they are not acting officially on behalf of a campus or the university system – the proposal has raised alarms for a number of faculty members.

Patti Miles, an associate business professor at the University of Maine flagship campus in Orono, said that when the proposal first became public, there was a lot of pushback from faculty members concerned about how it could undermine their ability to speak publicly on topics in their field of expertise.

Miles, who specializes in corporate taxes, said she should not be prohibited from offering her views on taxation.

“I can see how this could work both ways, but if it crosses over into my field of expertise that’s a totally different story,” she said by phone Wednesday night. “I am in the business of creating knowledge, and if I don’t push the boundaries, then how can I do that?”

She said that if a topic is potentially politically controversial, such as corporate taxation, the new policy would prohibit her from speaking publicly.

Miles, who also serves as a non-voting faculty member on the board of trustees, decided to write a paper to her faculty colleagues in an attempt to answer their questions about the proposal. Her memo quoted from the 1940 Statement of Principles by the American Association of University Professors, which defined academic freedom.

“College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations,” the statement says.

James Thelen, chief of staff and counsel to the university system, issued a statement Wednesday that said the policy is still in the discussion stage.

“We are currently in discussion with university and faculty leaders about a policy that would better and more clearly define institutional authority on political matters,” Thelen said.

The board of trustees will receive an update on those talks at their Jan. 28 meeting. Thelen said final action on the policy has not been scheduled.

“We hope our ongoing campus discussions with faculty and other stakeholders leads to a final policy that makes clear the official nonpartisan and apolitical status of our taxpayer-funded institutions while recognizing the important contributions our faculty can make to better inform our legislators and regulators in their areas of expertise,” he said.

Thelen’s statement assured faculty and students that the university has no intention of interfering with their free-speech rights. He said the university’s newly expanded free speech and academic freedom policy, which the trustees adopted in March 2017, reaffirms those rights.

The issue surfaced in November 2016 when students from the UMaine campus at Machias raised concerns with trustees about campus civility in the context of the contentious 2016 presidential election, as well as the political climate in Maine and the United States. They also cited concerns about unrest on college campuses across the country.

As a result of that meeting, the trustees formed a committee to examine two issues – free speech and political impartiality. Demeritt, the university system spokesman, said the idea behind the committee’s formation was to ensure that public universities remain places for free discussion and civil discourse where all ideas and individuals are respected.

Amy Fried, chairwoman of UMaine’s political science department in Orono, said some colleagues have expressed concerns, including one faculty member who said the policy is troubling because it fails to define political activity. That colleague asked Fried if organizing a unit on climate change and holding a panel discussion would violate the policy.

Fried urged the trustees to be very explicit in crafting language that does not inhibit faculty from losing their rights to act as citizens and to speak on topics in their field of expertise.

“While the general goals make sense, the devil is in the details, so the board of trustees should take its time to do this right,” Fried said in an email.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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