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OUR OPINION: So UND's Schafer endorsed for governor? Ho-hum

It's unusual for a sitting UND president to endorse a candidate for governor. But "unusual" is not the same as "scandalous." Furthermore, if it's scandalous you want, forget Interim President Ed Schafer's endorsement of candidate Doug Burgum. Ins...

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It's unusual for a sitting UND president to endorse a candidate for governor.

But "unusual" is not the same as "scandalous." Furthermore, if it's scandalous you want, forget Interim President Ed Schafer's endorsement of candidate Doug Burgum.

Instead, look at the reaction of outraged lawmakers who contacted the North Dakota University System in response and "in my opinion, threatened retaliation," as Schafer said in a news story.

Threatening to make UND or the North Dakota University System pay for the "sin" of a lame-duck, weeks-left-to-go president speaking his mind?

Now that's scandalous - and ridiculous, to be honest. Legislators who hinted at threats of any kind should be ashamed.

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"Nonprofit colleges and universities are prohibited by law from officially endorsing or opposing particular political candidates," the website Inside Higher Education reported in April.

That's why "college presidents typically, and wisely, steer clear of politics" - although "they are, of course, free to speak and act as individual citizens."

The latter is what Schafer has done. But there are several reasons why Schafer's action, while unusual in North Dakota, is not a source of concern.

The biggest is that Schafer is leaving office in a few weeks. That greatly eases his duty to be cautious - because he knows that in the fall, he won't have to ask Gov.-elect Wayne Stenehjem to put more money for, say, the new UND medical school in the budget.

Like lame ducks in politics, lame ducks in academia can speak more freely than their more permanent colleagues. That's human nature.

So when Schafer spoke out, North Dakotans could put it in context, knowing as they do about his short-term status at UND.

By the way, those who should keep this in context include North Dakota legislators. For Schafer's just being Schafer. He'll be out the door in a few weeks, and he's clearly and openly not speaking on behalf of UND.

So don't target UND for retaliation, lawmakers. Because by the time blameless UND feels any pain, Schafer will have been gone for months.

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The second reason is that even beyond his interim status, Schafer is unique in higher ed. He's a former governor and U.S. ag secretary, which makes him one of the best-known Republicans in the state.

And well-known Republicans are going to be asked for their views on Republican candidates, exactly as happened when the Herald editorial board asked Schafer who he was going to vote for. If U.S. Sen. John Hoeven becomes president of UND someday, we'll be asking him the same thing.

Third, while Schafer's endorsement is unusual in North Dakota, the nationwide precedent was set long ago. "Two hundred twenty-three college presidents, administrators, and trustees have endorsed Bill Clinton for president," the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 1992.

Like Schafer, those officials endorsed as individuals, not on behalf of their institutions. So did the president of the University of Florida in 2008, in endorsing John McCain. So did the president of the University of Miami this year, in endorsing Hillary Clinton.

In state politics, it's not wrong for university presidents to endorse. It's merely "impolitic," meaning it risks offending the wrong people.

But Schafer's status as a former governor and a lame-duck UND president gives him a temporary immunity to this response. We're not surprised he's taking advantage of it, given that the status expires in a few short weeks.

- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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