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September 3, 2008

Purdue stresses policy on political activity

The political campaign season brings opportunities for Purdue's faculty and staff to learn about the issues, engage in discussion and listen to candidates as they tour the state. But the Nov. 4 elections also bring the need for Purdue employees to consider the University's policy regarding employees' political activity.

"Purdue faculty and staff have their responsibility as citizens to participate in the political process," says Vic Lechtenberg, interim vice president for governmental relations and vice provost for engagement. "The excitement leading up to election reinforces the need for a conversation about our role as private citizens and our role as University employees."

Created in 1972, Purdue's policy  is based on federal and state regulations as well as guidelines issued by the American Council on Education. It states that employees cannot use the University or any of its assets to advance a political candidate or party.

Employees can support a political candidate or campaign for a political office as long as they make it clear that their views or candidacy do not have University endorsement.

In addition, employees' participation in political activities must be done on their own time and with their own equipment. For example, University letterhead, e-mail, faxes and copiers cannot be used.

Employees should not wear lapel pins or hang banners in their offices that indicate partisan support.

"People need to understand the policy and use good judgment," Lechtenberg says. "If someone puts up a political sign in their office, it could offend people who have a different political view or persuasion. If someone encourages people to vote without supporting a specific candidate or cause, that's a different issue."

Lechtenberg says that actions taken by employees can easily be misconstrued as actions of the University.

"Regardless of the outcomes of the political process, the University has to be effective in working with whoever the leaders are," he says. "If we are perceived as partisan in any way, we compromise our ability to be effective."

Purdue could face penalties if complaints of inappropriate political activity were filed. According to the American Council on Education, which issues guidelines on political activity for colleges and universities, penalties can include loss of the institution's tax-exempt status, imposition of taxes on the institution and its responsible managers, and federal or state government lawsuits, audits and investigations.

For Pablo Malavenda, associate dean of students, Purdue's commitment to remain apolitical is also tied to its mission as a land-grant institution to serve the state of Indiana.

"Indiana residents are very diverse in their beliefs and values," he says. "We pride ourselves in being an open university to anyone in the state who gets admitted, and we do a lot of engagement activities through Purdue Extension and community service programs. We serve the citizens of Indiana in so many ways that philosophically we could never take one side or another in a way that would make any individual in the state think Purdue is not serving them."

In most cases, if people breach the policy they do so unknowingly, Lechtenberg says.

"It's not an intentional act," he says. "Once the policy is brought to their attention by their supervisor, the person rectifies the situation."

Employees should direct questions about the policy to their supervisor.

Dennis Depew, dean of the College of Technology, recently attended a seminar that reviewed issues and rules surrounding political activity on campus. He plans to share the information with his deans and department heads.

"Being a faculty or staff member doesn't mean that you can't have an opinion or political beliefs or support a particular candidate," Depew says. "As a citizen, I can openly say I support a candidate. The fine line is, when am I speaking on behalf of the University in my official capacity and making a political statement and when am I just an Indiana citizen voicing my opinion. It's something we need to think about as Purdue employees."

Political activity policy

Purdue policy regarding employees' political activity is available at www.purdue.edu/policies/pages/human_resources/b_4.html.

-- From the Aug. 28 edition of Inside Purdue.