UMass-Amherst officials quash credit-for-campaigning offer

By Glen Johnson

BOSTON – University of Massachusetts officials quashed efforts Monday by an Amherst campus chaplain to offer two college credits to any student willing to campaign in New Hampshire this fall for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Chaplain Kent Higgins told students in a Sept. 18 e-mail, “If you’re scared about the prospects for this election, you’re not alone. The most important way to make a difference in the outcome is to activate yourself. It would be just fine with (Republican candidate John) McCain if Obama supporters just think about helping, then sleep in and stay home between now and Election Day.”

Higgins added that an unnamed “sponsor” in the university’s history department would offer a two-credit independent study for students willing to canvass – identify supporters – or volunteer on behalf of the Democratic nominee.

University officials disavowed the effort after inquiries Monday by The Associated Press.

They said it could run afoul of state ethics laws banning on-the-job political activity, as well as university policy.

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    “We do not engage in or sponsor partisan political activity,” said Audrey Alstadt, chairwoman of the history department. “We certainly do not give academic credit for participation in partisan politics.”

    UMass-Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said Higgins had previously arranged history department credit for students working on disaster relief efforts or other humanitarian ventures and had raised the idea of similarly rewarding students who got involved in the political process during the 2008 election.

    Blaguszewski said university officials had envisioned that the efforts would involve nonpartisan work such as get-out-the vote campaigns but changed their minds about the proposal when they saw a portion of Higgins’ e-mail.

    “The history department chair feels that what they were told was misleading, and then when the details of this emerged through the correspondence, they said, ‘Hey, this is not appropriate, and it’s not going to happen,'” Blaguszewski said.

    A spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party criticized the effort.

    “We’re disappointed, but frankly not surprised, that the liberal academic elite have once again decided to promote one candidate over another,” said GOP spokesman Barney Keller.

    “Our tax dollars pay their salaries so they can teach our children how to make up their own minds, not to advance a partisan political agenda,” she said.

    Higgins said he never intended for the program to be limited to supporters of Obama.

    Regardless of the opinions expressed in his e-mail, he said he would also have been open to those students who wanted to canvass for McCain.

    “The idea was there just to see if we could help with folks who want to be active with any of the campaigns in New Hampshire,” he said during an interview with the AP. “We have to be bipartisan, multilateral.”

    Higgins refused to identify the history department sponsor and referred all further questions to university officials.

    Blaguszewski said Higgins is one of about a dozen chaplains in Amherst, the flagship campus among the university’s five schools.