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Friday, May 20, 2022

Sharing political secrets

OpenSecrets. Sounds like a website where readers can learn the latest celebrity gossip, but in reality, it is something so much better, at least for the many political junkies who attend UW-Madison.  

 

OpenSecrets.org, presented by the Center for Responsive Politics, is just one of many sites on the Internet where the public can find a person's campaign donations if more than $200 has been contributed. With a simple employer or name search, it is easy for students to look up every single one of their professors and find out which candidates they support - and for how much.  

 

Some might see this public availability as unlawful, but according to the standards set by the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court case in 1976, this standard prevents corruption or the appearance of corruption. But does knowing this corrupt student learning? Students rely on professors to give lectures that are insightful but unbiased.  

 

When it comes to professors specifically, students' sense of political and moral awareness is often partially based on what they learn and observe in class.  

 

In general, professors have to make the conscious decision about whether they want their students to know which side of the aisle they stand on.  

 

Ultimately, this information could affect the way their class is perceived. Some professors, like UW-Madison political science professor Howard Schweber, recognize the choice but do not base their actions on this knowledge.  

 

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Although Schweber admits to not being perfectly consistent"" in terms of sharing his political views with his students, he tries to prevent his own opinions from permeating class discussions. 

 

""[I don't] go to great lengths to hide at least some of [my] political opinions,"" Schweber said, but noted that he tries to keep his own thoughts ""out of the substantive discussion of class materials.""  

 

Professors who find themselves on sites like OpenSecrets tend to see the activity as civic engagement and expect that UW students are able to decide for themselves which candidates they support, without being swayed by professor opinion.  

 

For instance, UW-Madison psychology professor Morton Ann Gernsbacher has given the maximum donation legally permitted to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and believes her decision to donate was an easy one.  

 

""[I have] great trust in the core maturity of the students at Wisconsin,"" Gernsbacher said. ""Such maturity enables students to appreciate that their faculty are multidimensional individuals who contribute energy, time and resources to activities outside the university.""  

 

In addition, Gernsbacher views her donations as part of her role as a conscientious citizen. 

 

""I would hope that the students would envision their faculty as individuals who will be civically engaged in their local and national communities,"" Gernsbacher said. ""Because these activities of civic engagement occur outside the university, I trust that the students will appreciate that these activities will not affect academic activities within the university."" 

 

UW-Madison political science professor Kenneth Mayer is one of the many UW-Madison professors not listed on OpenSecrets. He has made the personal choice not to contribute to a campaign for the very reason that he does not wish his students to be aware of his political stance.  

 

""[It is] valuable for students not to see the positions of advisors,"" Mayer said, but acknowledged that it was a decision he thought a lot about. ""By giving money, you sacrifice an element of privacy.""  

 

Mayer also mentioned that he understands every professor's situation is different and not donating was a personal choice he made early in his career.  

 

On a large campus like UW-Madison, professors have many different ways of handling their personal donations when it comes to giving or not giving to candidates they support. 

 

""Some professors' style of teaching is best served by their preserving ambiguity about their political attitudes,"" Schweber explained. ""Others take the approach that the more the students know about their prejudices, the more effective they can be as teachers.""  

 

In a similar way, the professors have differing views about the Supreme Court decision that allows their donations to be public records. 

 

For Mayer, the decision to make the records public is part of a legal give-and-take. He acknowledges that ""there is a balancing act required"" so it is a ""reasonable conclusion"" that the government set these contribution thresholds.  

 

Schweber, on the other hand, disagrees with the Supreme Court's ruling.  

 

""I think that there is absolutely no good reason for professors' or any other state employees' political contributions to be public knowledge,"" Schweber said. ""The ability to contribute money to a cause anonymously is barely one step removed from a secret ballot.""  

 

Whether professors agree with the law or not, it stands for now and they have to choose how they are going to deal with the cards that the government has dealt them. From the subject they teach to the information they offer, the choices they make influence the way students view their classes, but in the end no one can be sure what is the best way to handle it. 

 

Many professors and citizens alike understand the public nature of campaign contributions as a major way to control unregulated money from getting into politicians' hands. 

 

""I'm a strong believer in the value of transparency in our government and in the political process that elects our government,"" Gernsbacher said. ""Transparency in various domains can run the risk of invading personal privacy, but, in this domain, I believe the trade-off between transparency and potentially reduced privacy is valuable.""  

 

 

 

 

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