UND Graduate School Tells Students to Oppose Republican Tax Reform


UND officers take their places on stage at the University of North Dakota summer commencement, held at Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks, N.D. on August 5, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)

An email sent out last week by the University of North Dakota’s School of Graduate Studies urges students to oppose the Republican-backed tax reform which is set to be voted on by the House of Representatives today.

The email contains statements opposing the reform from the Council of Graduate Schools, and encourages students to contact members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation telling them to oppose the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It even includes a form letter students can “feel free to simply adopt,” though it recommends they “personalize the message as much as possible, since personal messages are often given greater weight than form letters.”

Finally, the email states students may “feel free to contact School of Graduate Studies Associate Dean Chris Nelson” if they have any questions.

You can read the email sent to the graduate students below. The form letter is here.

As you can see, the email was sent from an official UND account and to an official UND list serve. What’s more, this has the appearance of faculty instructing students on taking a specific political position.

Is this legal? Maybe, but the better question is probably whether it’s appropriate.

North Dakota does have a prohibition on the use of government resources – including email and computer systems – for political purposes. But as you can see from this excerpt from section 16.1-10-02 of the North Dakota Century Code, the definition of “political purpose” is probably narrow enough that it doesn’t include state university faculty/officials telling students to oppose or support federal legislation:

This is probably legal, at least under state law, not that North Dakota’s prosecutors have ever shown much interest in enforcing violations of this part of the statute.

But, again, the larger question is whether this is appropriate.

Think of the dynamic here. On one hand you have students. On the other hand you have university personnel who have a lot of authority over those students. The latter is now lecturing the former on which political positions to take through official university communication channels.

That doesn’t seem appropriate at all. At the very least, if a taxpayer funded institution like UND is going to send a political message to students, opposing views should be given an equal opportunity to make their case. This email from UND suggests students would be hurt by Republican-backed tax reform because it would remove deductions for things like student loans. But that leaves out the fact that the standard deduction – the one most North Dakotans take – would be doubled under the reform.

The case this email makes is myopic and one sided. Students deserve something better.

I’ve reached out to UND spokesman Peter Johnson for comment on this, as well as Associate Dean Chris Nelson. I’ll update with any information I receive.

UPDATE: Johnson provided me with this statement, saying that the email was inappropriate and the person responsible regrets sending it:

I was not aware of the email or the attachment before your email, nor was President Kennedy.
Although the tax reform bill as it reads now would almost certainly have a significant negative impact for the University of North Dakota (and for other universities with graduate programs), as President Mark Kennedy I think made clear in Andrew Haffner’s Grand Forks Herald story, the writer without question made a mistake in using university resources to send an email to graduate students to suggest that they take action.  Informing the students about the proposed bill would have been one thing; advocating a particular action is another thing.
Both President Kennedy and I have visited with the individual and he feels badly about his mistake.  He now understands how and why the email was not appropriate and not in keeping with the University’s guidelines.

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