Column upsets UWSP Republicans · 15 December 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Kelly McBride--Steven's Point Journal, 12/13/04

Pat Rothfuss, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point faculty member, has been writing his sarcastic, satirical column in UWSP's student newspaper for years.

He started "Your College Survival Guide" while still a UWSP student, continued writing while away at graduate school and has kept up the column since becoming an associate lecturer of English.

The column, which Rothfuss pens under his own name and describes as "about 80 percent stupid humor," is an outlet for an almost fictionalized, crazed version of himself as the perpetual student, he said. Irreverent advice from past columns, which are published in The Pointer, UWSP's student newspaper, has included everything from corporate America to voodoo and prostitution.

But a group of students from the UWSP College Republicans organization wasn't laughing Nov. 4 when a post-election Rothfuss column included phrases like "punching smug-looking Republicans in the mouth" and "key every car you see with a Bush bumper sticker." The column's premise was that Rothfuss was drunk while writing to himself, and it suggested, "why don't you go on a killing spree? I pet you can take out fixteen for sisteen republicans beofre they gun you down. Duke, youd' be like a heroe." (sic)

The column, which some organization members are saying crossed the line, has intensified the debate over academic freedom and political outspokenness on the UWSP campus.

The issue isn't Rothfuss' right to free speech, some College Republicans have said, but rather the appropriateness of a faculty member making such statements. Conservative or Republican students might feel uncomfortable or intimidated expressing their opinions in Rothfuss' classes, said College Republican Josh Schroeder.

" I understood that he wasn't being serious," Schroeder said. "But I also feel that if someone with a conservative point of view would have said anything half as incredulous in a satire article, ... we would have had the book thrown at us."

But Rothfuss maintains that his teaching persona and column-writing persona should be kept separate. He refused to apologize for the incident, a request made but then retracted by organization vice president Aaron Michels. Michels wrote a response to Rothfuss' column - minus the original apology request - in a letter to the editor published in The Pointer. Rothfuss also attended a College Republicans meeting to discuss the issue.

Although Schroeder and Michels say they don't want Rothfuss to step down or be fired because of the comments, they do want to raise awareness of what they see as a liberal bias on many college campuses.

The pair met with UWSP Provost and Vice Chancellor Virginia Helm following the column's publication to air their concerns. Helm was away from the university and unavailable for comment Friday, but vice chancellor for student affairs Bob Tomlinson said it's a university priority to make sure all students feel safe expressing their opinion.

"I think the important thing is, where members of our community express a political viewpoint, it needs to be in such a way that they're stating it from a position that is nonthreatening," Tomlinson said. "I think we always have to be sensitive to that faculty-student relationship that is power-based. The faculty member controls the grade and that sort of thing."

Also, Tomlinson said, because UWSP faculty and staff are state employees, their political activities are governed to some extent by state law. A memo sent prior to the election reminded faculty and staff that, for example, they cannot work on a political campaign while at work. Other rules include not displaying anything in the workplace that would support a partisan political candidate and not using campus resources like e-mail or computers for political activities. The memo indicated, however, that activities like displaying partisan signs or stickers on an employee vehicle parked in a state lot are OK.

For Michels and Schroeder, the question of possible liberal bias extends beyond Rothfuss' column. Both said Republicans are in the minority on campus, and that some faculty members grade more harshly for a partisan opinion they may not agree with.
But Rothfuss said he keeps such bias out of his classroom, grading on a rubric that leaves no room for personal opinion to color the grading scheme. His columns make fun of a variety of people and groups, he said, and oftentimes students find the column hilarious until their group is the target of the column's satirical ridicule.

As a response to Michels' letter to the editor, which called the content of Rothfuss' column "totally inappropriate" for a faculty member, Rothfuss in his Nov. 11 column decided to satirically apologize for much of the bad advice that he'd provided via his column. His retractions of bad "advice" included telling readers not to chase hippies with a lawnmower and not to mix ammonia with bleach and drink it.

Still, Michels and Schroeder maintain that the column was inappropriate. Faculty members shouldn't have to keep their views completely out of the classroom, Schroeder said, but students also shouldn't have to feel intimidated.

"Addressing the problems of bias," he said, "there's a tension between free speech and (professionalism) on behalf of the faculty. What we need to do is have some sort of dialogue to find (out) where is that middle ground?"