On Nov. 10, Associate Dean of Students for Residence Life Pamela McDowell sent an email addressed to St. Olaf students, faculty and staff about the school’s chapter of Turning Point USA, which displayed flags for Veteran’s Day to honor Americans who have served in the military. The email elicited many responses. Recipients were confused as to why McDowell would send out an email concerning the activities of Turning Point USA, a conservative political group. A long email thread, social media posts and conversation have followed McDowell’s email.
English professor and veteran Carlos Gallego voiced his concerns to the community via St. Olaf Extra.
“I expressed concern because the student organization that received positive publicity that day – albeit, possibly unintended – is infamous for controversy on college campuses,” Gallego said.
He also saw the gesture as hypocritical, seeing as many veterans benefit from public services and one of Turning Point’s mottos is “Big Government Sucks.”
“I know from personal experience that such situations actually get worse when these government agencies are privatized,” Gallego said. “The privatization of social services, including support for veterans, makes things worse, not better. At the end of the day, profit is indifferent to human suffering; in fact, suffering and death are very profitable markets within capitalism.”
Kathryn Hinderaker ’19, coordinator of the St. Olaf chapter of Turning Point USA, explained the email was sent out by McDowell in order to clear up any potential confusion about the display.
“After getting confirmation from Dean Roz, she generously asked if we would like [her] to send out an email to campus explaining what our event was about,” Hinderaker said. “I assume she did this since it was a public display and figured many people would walk by it and have questions. Sending out an explanation over email was definitely the easiest way to relay the information about our display.”
Hinderaker also commented on the negative reaction toward McDowell’s email.
“I thought the negative reaction was a bit ridiculous,” Hinderaker said. “Our group … put up a completely non-political display. And Veteran’s Day is in no way a politically affiliated holiday. Not to mention, the idea that administration has never sent out an email like this before is false. We receive campus-wide emails about political issues, speakers and conversations often, with no complaint from anyone.”
McDowell said the email was not out of the ordinary.
“I send a lot of messages that have to do with day-to-day living on campus, and official student organizations on campus frequently ask me to send messages on their behalf to the residence hall alias,” McDowell said. “In this case, since there was a public display in a highly visible area of campus, I felt it was appropriate. The fact that I sent this out does not indicate that the College endorses this group’s views or political positions.”
Diversity Celebration Committee (DCC) coordinator Krysta Wetzel ’18 was bothered by the message because it contradicts the administration’s usual policy of political neutrality. They also cited Turning Point USA’s website Professor Watchlist, which is designed to track college professors who “advance a radical agenda.”
“There’s this database of professors and that’s just really creepy,” Wetzel said. “It feels like surveillance. A website like Rate My Professor is specifically about teaching ability. Professor Watchlist frames the professors as terrible people. It seems like it could get dangerous for some people.”
“I don’t approve of the Watchlist and find it to be a Gestapo-like tactic used to intimidate, ironically, freedom of speech, specifically views that may counter conservative ideologies,” Gallego said.
Hinderaker agreed that Professor Watchlist is problematic.
“I think the Watchlist drew national attention to a problem many conservative students are having,” Hinderaker said. “In that way, I think it has been great. However, I definitely recognize some of the concerns people have expressed with it. The site is no longer being updated, and served more as a publicity stunt than anything.”
Hinderaker also said that the St. Olaf chapter of Turning Point USA has not and does not contribute to Professor Watchlist.
Some members of the St. Olaf community feel as if the criticism of McDowell for sharing Turning Point USA’s message is part of a greater problem of lack of ideological diversity in many American higher education institutions. This concern was raised during a Fox News interview with Hinderaker last year.
“At our first meeting of the College Republicans this year, we had a huge turn out,” Hinderaker said. “But what shocked me was how many people came that said they wouldn’t call themselves a Republican. Most of the people there came simply to engage in discussion that is not found in their classes or friend groups.”
As the political climate in the United States becomes more polarized, administrators like McDowell may find the choice to speak on political topics more difficult.
“True diversity has never existed in society,” Gallego said. “Our understanding of diversity is always one that is managed and controlled by some group or ideology … Even multiculturalism is a lie. When do we see the Taliban or ethnic supremacists represented on the multiculturalism spectrum? We don’t because we decided a while back that some ideas were counterproductive to what we understand as ‘civilization.’”