On June 6, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Roxanne Vaughan, a University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, defended herself saying the seemingly anti-immigrant and racist comment she posted on Facebook after Indian-American sixth-grader Ananya Vinay won the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee was not to be taken literally and did not represent her views on race or immigration.
Vaughan's original Facebook posting read: “I’m sure she’s an immigrant — not worthy of interacting with our pure americans (sic) — send her back!! (sic)”
Having spent more than two decades as a UND professor, I am confident that overt bigots and racists are very rare among the faculty. Being a professor should include being fair to all. Most UND students are intelligent and democratic enough not to tolerate such instruction.
My criticism is that Vaughan used Facebook rather than an opinion page like the one you are now reading to make her political statements. The Bismarck Tribune would have protected both her and its readership from the kind of irony she employed. For instance, Editor Steve Wallick or another Tribune staff member would have likely telephoned Vaughan to confirm her intent and help her make her message clear to the readership. If it was still intended to be bigoted or racist, the Tribune probably wouldn't run it. It's not Tribune policy to be an agent of racism and hate.
For over 20 years I have published guest letters and columns in the Tribune and other North Dakota dailies. What I write tends to be toward the left of the state's political spectrum. There have been times when an editor would caution me that some of my content was extreme, inaccurate or poorly worded. It was always done in a professional and friendly manner.
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I never experienced personal hostility to anything I wrote for a newspaper in North Dakota. Citizens with high newspaper literacy are generally tolerant in the North Dakota tradition. There was, however, one dissenting call I received. A reader telephoned me after I had written advocating for stricter gun control while criticizing the NRA. The caller invited me to go black powder shooting with him. He was an example of pure Americanism.
Vaughan's seeming miscommunication on Facebook reminded me that tenured professors should feel an obligation to express their views in an open forum, and to use their expertise to effectively communicate to North Dakota citizens and taxpayers who support them, with the objective of collectively improving and sustaining our university system.
Tenure is a unique status. A tenured professor has special economic protection with regard to freedom of speech and dissent. There are many tenured North Dakota professors with expertise on legislative actions, economic or political issues and relative to higher education policies. I am always surprised when they are fearful, hesitant or even too lazy to present their informed opinions and commentary using local or state media to maximize information for North Dakota voters and citizens.
I'm not particularly brave myself, but as a professional journalist and journalism professor I have never felt hindered at expressing myself in the media. No one believes the press is infallible. The intelligent media consumer absorbs the content and ideas that appeal in the newspaper and ignores the rest.
For all these reasons, I would appeal to academics on all of North Dakota's campuses to subscribe to and read their local newspaper. Then respond to issues and ideas when they have related expertise or knowledge. If we are to sustain and grow our colleges and universities, they will need strong and informed advocates reporting for the media.
Bismarck State College has been particularly hit by budget cuts, including the elimination of 52 positions, a hiring freeze and a 20 percent cut in the operating budget. The voluntary furlough system is especially disturbing. Faculty and staff are said to be "voluntarily" donating from their salary, but we all understand that no worker with a family to support would do so without the duress imposed by a stingy and inept state Legislature. The voices of those experiencing this crisis need to be heard, and the news and opinion pages of this and other newspapers offer the best forum.
Richard Shafer is a University of North Dakota Emeritus Professor of Journalism