President Barack Obama’s visit to Bascom Hill on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus Thursday has elicited support from those who hope the event brings good publicity to the university, excitement from Obama supporters and joy from throngs of students whose classes have been cancelled.
But the day before the speech, some are questioning the role the University, a public institution, is playing in what is a clearly partisan campaign event.
In an email sent to university officials Wednesday, Political Science professor Ken Mayer expressed serious concerns about the university’s supportive role of Obama’s speech throughout the process.
Mayer called Bascom Hill the most “disruptive” spot on campus to hold a rally and condemned the office closings and class cancellations that came as a result. He also questioned the decision to hold a campaign event on campus grounds.
A set of guidelines released by the university Sept. 8 read “political activities are generally not allowed inside campus buildings or spaces, recreational sports facilities, athletics facilities or campus libraries.”
“Clearly it’s a campaign space, a space that’s being rented by a campaign,” said Vice Chancellor for University Relations Vince Sweeney in reaction to Mayer’s criticisms. “But it is the President of the United States.”
As a consequence of the building closures, Mayer pointed out, the university is requiring faculty affected by the event to work off location or take a vacation or personal day.
“The UW is penalizing staff (or, at a minimum, dramatically inconveniencing them) for an event that they had no say in organizing or scheduling,” he said in the letter. “That's wrong.”
Additionally, Mayer questioned the way students obtain a ticket for the event, which required visiting the Obama campaign website, entering contact information and clicking on a button that says “I’m in!”
“Having a president visit as an educational public event is one thing,” Mayer wrote. “Forcing students to declare their support for a presidential candidate in order to attend the event on campus is quite another.”
And Mayer is not alone. UW-Madison professor Donald Downs called the circumstances surrounding the rally “very questionable.”
While Sweeney acknowledged some of the critiques, he said the university will benefit greatly from the exposure to the event.
“It’s not a perfect situation,” Sweeney said. “But overall I think the benefits outweigh some of the negatives or the disruptions or issues that some people may raise.”
Downs said when Obama visited UW-Madison just two years ago, then Chancellor Biddy Martin insisted the event not be held on Bascom and instead moved it to Library Mall.
Martin made sure to “symbolically separate the event from the University itself,” according to Downs.
As to what role UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward played in planning Thursday’s visit, Sweeney said University officials have been involved in the decision making from the beginning.
“We were not on the sidelines,” Sweeney said. “We were in the discussions and in the planning stages before the site selection was finalized.”