Howes: UM's GOP hater gets warm welcome in The Arena

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Into this alleged season of good will steps Susan J. Douglas, the University of Michigan communications professor who categorically claims to "hate Republicans."

What a surprise. Almost as surprising is the predictable hand-wringing coming from student conservatives, the university's two Republican regents, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and what seem like countless posters on various websites.

They want, in various forms, discussion, apology, disciplinary action, resignation, something to atone for a sweeping denunciation that says far more about the writer's intolerance and selective reading of history than her intended target. Relax, people: When a rhetorical adversary is destroying her credibility, better to stand back and let her finish the job.

Demanding political correctness on the right is no more defensible than the tired plaints on the left, so commonplace nowadays that they're losing punch and authority in equal measure. That Douglas so clearly demonstrated her bias makes her teaching — and grading — a pedagogical target for iPhone-toting students in Ann Arbor.

Douglas can write whatever she wants to write for In These Times, as the university affirmed in a statement. Yet in doing so, she can suffer the opprobrium that comes with making a bad argument and then stepping into The Arena, in Teddy Roosevelt's conjuring, turbo-charged by the Internet and social-media cudgels wielded by all sides.

In response to the furor, the good professor issued a statement through the university that attempts to apologize even as it blames an editor for writing the head "It's Okay to Hate Republicans" for a piece beginning with "I hate Republicans." And, second, she says it's "precisely" her "commitment as a teacher to welcome and encourage all points of view in my classrooms that I am so concerned about climates of intolerance."

Not sure which is more entertaining: the irony of using intolerance to battle intolerance, or utter cluelessness to the fact that she gave her intended targets a metaphorical club to beat her with. Smart communications strategy, that.

That said, Douglas's paean to intolerance — her tortured rationalization notwithstanding — offers an opportunity for President Mark Schlissel and a Board of Regents reeling from a fall's-worth of drama and recrimination surrounding its football team and the politicized ouster of its athletic director, Dave Brandon.

It's called institutional credibility. Here's a small chance for the regents weighted 6-2 in favor of Democrats to, in effect, denounce the categorical intolerance expressed by Douglas but defend her right to say it in a "community that supports and defends a wide variety of viewpoints and a diversity of opinion on all subjects," as Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, a Republican, said.

"But this particular column, which expresses and condones hatred toward an entire segment of individuals based solely on their political views, fails to observe an equally important value of our University: respect for the right of others to hold views contrary to our own."

Exactly right. But the university didn't denounce the sentiment expressed by Douglas; instead it's hiding behind a statement headlined "Academic Freedom." Think a similarly snarky piece by a Michigan professor headlined "It's Okay to Hate Democrats" carried by, say, National Review Online would have elicited the same reaction?

The question answers itself — particularly from a governing board that has a demonstrated proclivity for partisanship (see the grad-student organizing drive, to name one) from its Democratic majority. Michigan is the only state in the country that elects the trustees of its three major state universities by partisan statewide ballot, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Colorado, Nevada and Nebraska elect university trustees by district. The trustees council historically advocates "for gubernatorial appointment" to public university boards "so there is a single point of accountability," spokesman Daniel Burnett wrote in a recent e-mail.

An enterprising member of the incoming Legislature, taking seats next month, might perform a public service with legislation that would bring Michigan up to speed (and theoretically more accountable to its diverse population) and move toward appointed boards at its major universities.

Not that such a reform, however overdue it may be, would ensure the words "respect" and "diversity of opinion" don't remain an oxymoron at Michigan and elsewhere. But it might be a start.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at