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Friday, September 22, 2023

UW-Milwaukee professors took to social media last week after a dispute with  University Relations over whether a poster for a presentation on academic freedom during the Trump administration was too partisan.

‘Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump’ poster causes controversy, censorship concerns at UW-Milwaukee

UW-Milwaukee University Relations rejected a poster for a talk titled “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump” for its “partisan tone” last week, according to professors sponsoring the event

However, the university reversed its decision after the incident caused controversy on Twitter, and a university spokesperson later said UW-Milwaukee never rejected the poster at all. 

The university initially disputed the promotional poster due to its “combination of the word ‘Trump,’ the red color, and the imagery of books in chains,” according to UW-Milwaukee professor Joel Berkowitz’s blog post about the incident. 


Berkowitz, who is also president of the UW-Milwaukee chapter of the American Association of University Professors, invited national AAUP officer Joerg Tiede to campus to speak on the topic of academic freedom. Tiede chose the title of his presentation and a UW-Milwaukee graphic designer created the poster, Berkowitz wrote. 

Berkowitz and UW-Milwaukee AAUP officer Rachel Buff planned to promote Tiede’s talk by sharing the poster on social media and displaying it on electronic screens across campus. 

University Relations notified Buff it had rejected the ad Feb. 13, according to Buff and Berkowitz. 

Buff and Berkowitz reported the university gave them options regarding the poster, including submitting a different design, emailing senior staff members in University Relations or appealing the rejection in a meeting that would take place the day before the talk.  

But according to UW-Milwaukee Vice Chancellor of University Relations and Communications Tom Luljak, University Relations never told the professors they couldn’t use the poster to promote the event. 

The debate over the poster originated from UW-Milwaukee’s new approval policy for posters and fliers, Luljak said in an email. The new policy, which followed an August incident involving a poster for a criminal justice class featuring a black student wearing police tape as a scarf, requires a rotating team of three University Relations specialists. 

After one of the specialists raised concerns that the academic freedom talk poster was “political,” a marketing manager notified the poster’s creators. Notification was “the beginning of a conversation” about how to proceed with the poster, and the university hadn’t made a decision yet, Luljak said.

Berkowitz wrote in his blog that he “hardly know[s] what to say” to this explanation, first mentioned in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

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“Since just about any decision made by a university employee or committee — failing a student, rejecting someone’s application for tenure and promotion, firing someone, et al — is subject to appeal, then I suppose one could claim that any of these things are ‘the beginning of a conversation,’” Berkowitz wrote.

Buff and Berkowitz both shared news of the poster’s apparent rejection on Twitter, tagging the national AAUP account. AAUP made its own five-tweet thread on the incident, asking “Irony aside, what message is @UWM sending in the Age of Trump?”

Following tweets about the apparent rejection, Luljak approved the poster for use around campus.

“When Rachel Buff sent her tweet, the matter was escalated directly to me, bypassing the brand standards committee,” Luljak said. “I quickly reviewed the ad in question and determined it was not a problem and gave the green light for it to be used.”

However, those involved with the poster’s creation didn’t find out about UW-Milwaukee’s decision until the next day, after AAUP and others on Twitter weighed in, according to Berkowitz.

After UW-Milwaukee approved use of the poster, Buff tweeted to thank everyone for speaking up and said “this is what we call a win.”

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