Samantha Warren couldn’t sleep the night after the University of Maine system denounced a professor’s one-credit course offering that would bring University of Southern Maine students to Washington, D.C., to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The director of government and community relations for the system, Warren wrote an email to the Legislature’s Republican caucus. She thanked the Republican lawmaker who had brought the course to the university’s attention, lamented that it detracted from positive work on campus and touted appointments by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage to the university board of trustees.

By 9 a.m. the next day, Warren had received more than a dozen responses, thank-you messages and questions from Republican lawmakers. She used the responses to encourage university officials to move assertively against recently retired professor Susan Feiner, who offered the “pop-up” class.

“Us ferreting out rogue elements is a strong story line – allowing them to go unchecked is not,” Warren wrote to university officials. “Several GOP leaders who want us to be successful, like the Senate President, agreed that the more assertive we can be on this, the better.”

Warren’s message, written Oct. 4, 2018, is among more than 700 emails between UMaine officials, Republican lawmakers, Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage and members of the university community about Feiner’s pop-up “Engaged Citizenship” class.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request made by attorneys for Feiner, who is considering legal action in the case, and were shared with the Press Herald. The newspaper also made the same request from the university system in order to receive the documents directly.

The emails highlight the university’s swift response to Republican party concerns about the class, which came to light just weeks before a statewide referendum on a $49 million facilities and infrastructure bond for the university. They illustrate how officials tried to prevent the erosion of public support for the bond in light of the controversy over the class.

The emails include correspondence with Republican lawmakers around their concerns about the class. Warren also told the party about steps the university was taking in response, shared an official statement before it was made public, and discussed plans to focus on the party and a conservative talk show when releasing information.

Warren said in an interview that there was no correspondence with Democrats because Republicans were the ones reaching out with concerns.

University of Southern Maine adjunct professor Susan Feiner, far left, joins protesters from Maine outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., during the run-up to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the fall of 2018. Email correspondence shows Maine’s GOP pressured USM to punish Feiner for offering college credit to join in the protest. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

System policy states that the university must remain impartial, in part because much of its funding comes from Maine taxpayers and student tuition revenue supported by federal financial aid programs, and also because it has a federal nonprofit tax-exempt status.

The emails highlight the difficult position the policy can create for the UMaine system, which must balance academic freedom and the rights of students and faculty to express their opinions with a need to remain politically neutral.

Some members of the university community felt officials did too much to accommodate the concerns of the Republican lawmakers. USM banned Feiner from teaching at any campus in the UMaine system even before an investigation into the class was completed, and terminated a roughly $500,000 grant from the National Education Association that covered most of the cost of the social justice, one-credit pop-up classes.

“The hypocrisy of it all is just astounding,” Feiner said in an interview this week. “Here they are accusing me, a retired professor with zero power in the university system, of abusing whatever and doing something so partisan I have to be smeared across the nation while they were coordinating their response to it with the Maine GOP.”

Jim McClymer, president of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, the union representing faculty across the system, said he was “shocked and concerned” after reviewing the emails.

“I’m shocked the university would basically only interact with one party and not focus on acting with integrity in this incident,” McClymer said. “Instead they bought into the hype of making it into something it wasn’t.”

University officials, meanwhile, acknowledged their response to the Republican concerns, and said they would have acted similarly to respond to Democrats.

“Anytime dozens of people, especially dozens of legislators have a concern about an activity that has happened involving the university, as the university’s liaison to the Legislature I do feel it is important to be responsive,” Warren said. “I don’t think I felt pressured. Certainly I felt the urgency to respond given how quickly things were spreading on social media.”

“I think the Republican party had every right to be upset,” USM President Glenn Cummings said in an interview. “You can imagine what would happen if it was the other way around, if a legislator or representative in Washington or Augusta had a situation on the other side. It’s really about violating the public trust and that’s something the university has to hold sacred.”

“I don’t feel like we ever try to appease either political party,” he added. “I think we want to be balanced and we want to be fair.”

‘ENGAGED CITIZENSHIP’ CLASS

The emails came after a hastily arranged Oct. 4 pop-up class that would have offered students one credit to travel on a bus with activists headed to the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination.

The course was advertised to students through email and included a link to a form that asked if they were OK with being arrested. The form was part of a sign-up sheet for the general public to ride the bus, and Feiner said its purpose was because “we did not know, and nobody knew, what the situation was going to be like when we got to the capitol.”

In the aftermath, Feiner, a recently retired tenured professor of economics and gender and women’s studies who was working as an adjunct, acknowledged she made a mistake in not properly registering the class and having it approved through the proper channels.

Although the original advertisement to students included the word “protest,” Feiner said “any student of any opinion” was welcome on the bus.

REPUBLICANS, AND OTHERS, REACT

Although no students registered for the class, the emails advertising it quickly sparked a flurry of responses. University officials said they received hundreds of phone calls with complaints, and emails to Cummings from the public also highlighted the outrage.

“Please tell me how this is accepted at the university?” read one email. “As a taxpayer I am disgusted. This professor should be fired. How is offering a credit for this acceptable?”

Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said the party decided to put out a statement after hearing from people who had seen social media postings about the class.

“That lady professor really got me upset when I saw her on TV,” Savage said in an email to Warren.

“Just want to know something is done,” he said in a follow-up. “For all the good Glenn has done, this looks and feels like a campus out of control.”

Later that night Warren shared a statement with Savage from then-Chancellor James Page before it was released to the public. “Remember, he grew up with Senator Collins, and her brother (Sam Collins) remains a Trustee and the idea of us facilitating protests of any elected official but especially her is unacceptable to him,” Warren said.

It was after that exchange that Warren was up late emailing Republican lawmakers, and the next day, after getting some of their responses, she encouraged other university leaders to take “decisive action, as appropriate.”

“Today’s divisive political environment promulgated by politicians and media outlets cannot be promoted by faculty and staff at our taxpayer funded University System,” Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, said in an email to Warren. “I’m concerned this is just the tip of the iceberg that slipped out.”

In another email, Rep. Karleton Ward, R-Dedham, told Warren he would have to hold off on supporting the bond after news of the class bolstered “a very strongly and widely-held perception (by Republicans) that the vast majority of professors and instructors at the University of Maine are extreme left-wing liberals and Democrats.”

“(The) fact is a hard thing for most Republicans to get past,” Ward said. “We raise our kids successfully to be conservative thinkers and many of them graduate from the University of Maine with completely different viewpoints than those held by their families back home.”

MESSAGING THE TEACHING BAN

About two weeks after Cummings condemned Feiner’s actions and pulled the class, the university announced it would bar Feiner from teaching at any campus across the system, even as an investigation into how the course got listed and promoted was still ongoing.

It strategized on how the news would be released, planning on only offering statements to the Maine GOP and conservative Voice of Maine radio show “to avoid inviting another round of expansive coverage of the controversy.”

“The University of Southern Maine will NOT issue a broadly distributed press release, relying instead on President Cummings to engage with targeted outlets (the Maine GOP and the Voice of Maine),” university system spokesman Dan Demeritt wrote in an email to officials on Oct. 10.

In an email Tuesday, Demeritt said that kind of planning around the release of information isn’t unusual, and the university often will limit the distribution of information if it is in response to inquiries, clarifies misinformation or involves sensitive student or personnel matters.

“Dr. Feiner’s widely reported violation of the public trust outraged many Mainers,” Demeritt said. “To preserve its public standing as a university committed to serving all Maine students the institution and its leaders had an obligation to proactively keep stakeholders and key audiences informed of its responses to Dr. Feiner’s action and respond transparently to media inquiries.”

The reaction to Feiner being banned from teaching was mixed.

“The response to this course was so overwhelming – and frankly scary – to all that it touched, that I do think the college could benefit from some collective reflection upon the larger issues that it raises,” Adam Tuchinsky, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, said in an email to Cummings and provost Jeannine Uzzi after the fact.

Tuchinsky said there was a feeling among faculty that the administration did not dampen passions around the controversy, but rather “accommodated the conservative rage” and that the response created a “chilly climate” for teaching about controversial issues.

In another email, Edgar Beem, an alumnus, wrote to Cummings to say the school’s response, “pandering to the (GOP),” was too much.

“I appreciate the awkward position Susan Feiner’s action put you in and I understand that she was out of line,” Beem wrote. “I just think stating that the pop‐up course was unauthorized, no credit would be offered for it and that Susan Feiner had been told she was out of line would have been enough. Telling a recently retired tenured professor that she can never teach again at the university strikes me as overkill.”

In an email from another alum, Willa Barnum wrote she was “deeply disappointed to hear that Professor Susan Feiner has been barred from (teaching) at USM.”

“I think you could understand how you might feel if a conservative professor decided to give credit for an antiabortion rally,” Cummings, a former Democratic Speaker of the House in the Maine Legislature, said in a responding email. “I suspect you would be furiously writing to me with deep indignation and outraged opposition. You would be calling, I suspect, for a strong disciplinary response. I would. Try to put yourself in that position.”

Some of the feedback the university received did applaud USM’s response.

“We all know that this type of partisanship is wrong in the classroom, but has been the norm for years,” wrote George Towle, a former women’s cross-country coach at USM.

TERMINATING THE NEA GRANT

In an interview, Cummings further defended the university’s response to Feiner, saying the severity of her actions warranted a swift response.

“I think in this case people felt there had been inappropriate behavior on the part of Professor Feiner,” he said. “I think that response threatened the trust we have from the Maine people and I think our response was certainly wise given how important that trust is.”

He also defended the decision to terminate the grant, which Feiner and other faculty had applied for in 2017. A university investigation, completed in December 2018, found that administration of the grant fell short of expectations and oversight of pop-up classes, which don’t usually last for more than few weeks, was moved to an in-house operation.

That decision prompted pushback from some faculty, including two professors who had worked with Feiner on it and said in a December 2018 email to Cummings that they were willing to work on restructuring it.

“Without the financial support of the grant, the staff person was laid off and USM is offering pop-ups for students, but must cover the tuition costs and faculty pay with university budgets,” Lydia Savage, one of the professors, said in an email.

THE BRIGHT RED LINE

It’s not unusual for lawmakers to reach out to the university with questions or concerns on issues both big and small, Warren said, and while she doesn’t formally track which side of the aisle most concerns come from, she did say that she tends to hear more from Republicans.

Jason Savage, who is not related to Lydia Savage, said the party itself doesn’t often reach out to the university. “It’s only in the most extreme of cases,” he said. “We know well enough that anybody can have their own political beliefs and we respect that, but when it becomes an institutional thing that lets you give credit to get arrested, that goes too far.”

The pop-up controversy arose at a unique time for USM, coming just months after the university system passed a new policy on political speech on campus, and as Maine’s senior senator was in the national spotlight for a highly anticipated vote on Kavanaugh.

Around the same time, more than 1,000 faculty and staff at public and private colleges and universities in Maine, including USM, signed a letter encouraging Collins not to support Kavanaugh, a move that met with no response from the university system.

A University of Maine professor also was featured in a political ad advocating for Mainers to vote “yes” on a 2018 referendum that sought to implement a tax on higher incomes to fund home healthcare services. Though Sandra Butler was identified as a UMaine professor, the ad met university policies by disclosing that she was speaking in a personal capacity.

“This case was exceptional in that it clearly went over the line,” Cummings said of Feiner’s class. “There is a bright red line where using your authority to grant credit for one particular position is significantly inappropriate. I do think this case is actually helpful so people can see that bright red line.”

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