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In the US, politics is probably the most talked-about subject at the moment, and I have strong opinions.

I would very much like to volunteer for a specific party, but I am concerned that I am in a position of power, and thus if I were to be out campaigning for a particular candidate, this could affect my students' freedom to vote, should I run into them while I am volunteering.

Are there any rules in the university that forbids professors from participating in political activities? How much is acceptable? Can I help out with phoning people to get them to register to vote? Can I knock on doors in person? Could I run for office eventually?

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    "Are there any rules in the university that forbids professors from participating in political activities?" Did you ask the university? – Penguin_Knight Oct 11 '16 at 18:09
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    Just avoid using University letterhead, symbols, etc., on anything you send out. Best not to use a university email address, as well. – Scott Seidman Oct 12 '16 at 0:06
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    It doesn't seem worth an answer itself, but many Universities - especially public funded ones - have restrictions on political speech/actions which are conducted during teaching duties. So spending class time talking about who students should vote for, for instance, would run afoul of a variety of institutional policies. – BrianH Oct 12 '16 at 1:45
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    President Obama was senior lecturer until his election to the Senate in 2004, I imagine he was somewhat politically active before being elected. – RemcoGerlich Oct 12 '16 at 8:07
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    Think Noam Chomsky. – Thomas Oct 13 '16 at 9:46
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Since you are concerned, it must be a good idea to look into the rules, as @Penguin_Knight suggests. But it would be absolutely shocking if you were not allowed to volunteer for a particular candidate or party: by restricting you from doing that, the university would be infringing upon your own political freedom.

I am concerned that I am in a position of power, and thus if I were to be out campaigning for a particular candidate, this could affect my students' freedom to vote, should I run into them while I am volunteering.

I'm honestly not sure what problematic activities you're envisioning here. A university professor is allowed to be a real boy or girl. Students may run into you while you're outside doing real person stuff, and they have no right to being "protected from you" any more than anyone else they might encounter. How does running into a student affect that student's "freedom to vote"?

Are there any rules in the university that forbids professors from participating in political activities? How much is acceptable? Can I help out with phoning people to get them to register to vote? Can I knock on doors in person? Could I run for office eventually?

Again, the answer to the first question is that if you want to know the rules of your university, you should not ask us, because you know which university is yours and we do not. (Added: As Tom Church points out, there is a small but positive number of US universities for which the answer will be very different from the general case!) The answer to the last three questions is that I would certainly expect you to be able to do all three of those things (again, you're a real person; you have the same right to knock on people's doors as anyone else!). If you successfully attain office, then this might interfere with your academic schedule and commitments, but it would be up to you to resolve that: e.g. if you live in a small town and get elected to a town council that only meets on Thursday mornings...probably okay.

If you feel strongly that (i) you want to be openly political and (ii) that you do not want your job to be even slightly at risk, here is some advice for that: I suggest you keep a clear separation of your political and educational activities. When you bring up politics in the context of a course or student supervisory relationship, it should be in the service of an intellectual/academic point you are trying to make, not your own political activity. When political ideas come up naturally in coursework, you should make an effort not to signal or imply that your own political beliefs are "the right answer". You should certainly not try to politically proselytize with your own students or suggest that their grades will suffer if their political views do not align with yours.

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    @DanielR.Collins: well, or other. – tomasz Oct 13 '16 at 5:51
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    "You should certainly not try to politically proselytize with your own students or suggest that their grades will suffer if their political views do not align with yours." In fact, if the OP is particularly worried that the students might feel this way, it probably wouldn't hurt to put a clause about fairness in the syllabus (if there isn't one already), and who to contact if you feel you've been graded unfairly. – called2voyage Oct 13 '16 at 16:11
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Unless you are at an unusually restrictive university (Liberty University, Bob Jones University, etc) there are absolutely no problems with professors engaging in political activities. Indeed professors can and have run for office, been appointed to cabinet positions, etc.

To make this very simple: Condoleeza Rice is a professor at my institution. This is not a problem. Christina Romer was a professor at Berkeley when she advised the Obama administration on the stimulus. This was not a problem. Is there anything you could possibly do that would be more politicized than serving as Secretary of State or on the Council of Economic Advisers? No. So you're fine.

It's easy enough to avoid knocking doors on campus, if you're worried about impropriety; and if you run into students who are in your class, it might indeed be a good idea not to actively try to persuade those specific students. But the mere fact that you, like most humans, have political beliefs does not need to be kept secret.

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    +1 for pointing out that some universities one might not have the, er, Liberty to engage in certain political activity on one's private time. – Corvus Oct 11 '16 at 22:05
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    Good answer with good examples. Just to point out: Rice was Provost at Stanford (the youngest in its history), then left to be Secretary of State, then came back to Stanford as a professor. This is not the most repeatable of career trajectories! But your point is well taken: in some parts of academia, some kinds of political involvement are badges of distinction. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '16 at 23:24
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    +1 in particular for the last paragraph. (I was going to write a partial answer saying exactly that but now I don't need to.) – David Richerby Oct 12 '16 at 9:27
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Albert Einstein was an outspoken proponent of civil rights and labour zionism. He was a critic of anti-communism during the McCarthy era, and warned against the devastating power of the atomic bomb. This is just one very prominent example of many scholars who have accepted the role of public intellectual. It clearly is a political role. Hence, even if professors were not allowed to to participate in political activities, it is far from unheard of that they do.

That professors are in a position of power is only a problem to the extent that they misuse this power. The crucial question is of course how to delineate the misuse and legitimate use. Just to give two extreme examples: On the one hand, a professor can't treat students differently according to their political views. On the other hand, if a political scientist can't publicly address issues of, say, democratic representation, this would be a waste of their expertise. The same applies to an economist who can't give their opinion on tax reform, or a physician who can't apply their knowledge to public health issues.

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  • I do not understand "professors are in a position of power". To some extent some might be. But so isn't Trump. Is Trump ethically bound to stay out of politics because of his position of power over hotel staff? – emory Oct 12 '16 at 16:17
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The AAUP's (American Association of University Professors) 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure is based on three primary tenets. The final one is this:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

This is not directly binding on universities, but generally reflects an accepted ideal in the U.S. university system, and to my understanding is assessed and upheld by accreditation bodies. It has been continuously upheld and refined in other publications of the AAUP over the decades.

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In the Texas A&M University system, employees are allowed to participate in political activities as a private citizen. That is, the Provost for West Texas A&M cannot use their title to endorse a candidate - rather, they must do so as a private citizen.

This may depend on the university system (and perhaps the university itself), so consult the policies regarding this.

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    I suspect that this means, in practice, that the Provost can't endorse a candidate at all. I'm pretty sure that if he did, even as a private citizen, the media would not report "Wade Shaffer endorses candidate X", since most people would react, "Er, who?" Rather, they'd report "Wade Shaffer, Provost of West Texas A&M, endorses", "The Provost of West Texas A&M endorses" or, quite likely, just "West Texas A&M endorses..." The fact that he was acting as a private citizen gets lost in the noise. – David Richerby Oct 12 '16 at 9:32
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    @DavidRicherby: The media would have to get such a statement directly from the source (i.e. either the Provost or the University spokesperson) which obviously won't happen. Hearsay doesn't really matter. .That's why you don't read about this: by not acknowledging any affiliation, the endorsement has lost its media value. – MSalters Oct 12 '16 at 10:29
  • @MSalters The source for "Shaffer endorses X" would be Shaffer's own statement; the fact that Shaffer is Provost is public knowledge. But, as we agree, an endorsement from a private individual you've never heard of is worthless and the only way it would be worth anything would be if the media linked it to the university. So, in practice he can't endorse because there's no point making a useless endorsement and a useful endorsement is against policy. – David Richerby Oct 12 '16 at 11:03
  • @DavidRicherby: "In practice he can't endorse" is completely incorrect and I think you know it. It's perfectly possible to explain why someone is noteworthy without claiming their entire organization agrees with the viewpoint, and even if that's difficult, the onus and any consequences for misinterpretation are on the news service, not on the individual making the endorsement. All the example verbiage you give would be very misleading by the news organization and might get them sued for libel, but a small variation "Wade Shaffer endorses candidate X. Shaffer has degree Y and is Provost of Z" – Ben Voigt Oct 13 '16 at 18:58
  • @DavidRicherby: There's no rule that the Provost of West Texas A&M must be of no interest other than holding that position; for example, (s)he may have written a series of famous novels, may be the scion of a local wealthy family, may be a former President of the United States, etc. – ruakh Oct 13 '16 at 20:37
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Other commentators are absolutely right that it is common for academics to be engaged in political activities, and some prominent political activists/politicians have concurrent academic positions. There is no inherent problem with this. Obviously you should make sure that you don't allow your political opinions to negative affect your teaching, and you should not proselytise to your classes. University students are adults, and if you run into a student while campaigning, it is unlikely that this would cause a problem. If you are really concerned about making a student feel uncomfortable, you can always forgo your campaigning in the presence of that tiny subset of the population.

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I'd like to add to the existing answers that although there's generally nothing wrong with political activity, as long as you don't e.g. proselytise to your students or abuse your position to achieve political ends, it can be unprofessional if your field of teaching is itself about politics or history and requires you to have a neutral viewpoint.

So if you're teaching history (especially recent history), politicology, sociology, or some such, you probably shouldn't even join a party, let alone become politically active. And this is doubly true if you are also doing research.

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    -1 Prominent counterexamples. Barack Obama was a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago immediately before becoming an Illinois senator; he cannot have avoided campaigning to be elected at the time he held an academic appointment. Condoleezza Rice was a professor of political science at Stanford before and after being Secretary of State. She held a number of political appointments concurrent with her academic work, before being Secretary of State. – David Richerby Oct 12 '16 at 9:37
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    Correction (which makes my case stronger): Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago while he was an Illinois senator and didn't leave the post until 2004, the year he was elected to the U.S. Senate. – David Richerby Oct 12 '16 at 10:59
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    In reality, everyone has some political views. Indeed, one might expect a professor of Political Science (or a similar field) to have stronger views than many people, since they obviously care about politics. Everyone is biased, so would it not arguably be the duty of such a professor to make their students aware of that bias? – Ian D. Scott Oct 12 '16 at 16:07
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    @DavidRicherby Additional example: Fernando Haddad, outgoing mayor of São Paulo, Brazil, is a professor of political science at the University of São Paulo. Beyond that, Ian D. Scott wrote pretty much exactly what I was about to say. – duplode Oct 13 '16 at 7:13

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