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In my department, it has been fairly common to receive mass emails from our department chair about political developments. These emails followed the election last winter, recent executive orders from our current president, as well has his failure to receive a dean appointment at our university. In this question, I am not addressing the political issues themselves, but whether it is appropriate, or not, for an educational administrator to send politically driven emails en masse.

To be frank, though in my opinion, his emails have been very emotional and childish. For example, he sent a mass email about his loss as a candidate to become the dean of a college -it was an emotionally charged correspondence that had an air of whining in it. Likewise, he has sent emails about his distaste with developments in Washington DC. Emails have encouraged students to sign onto a petition. I am a big fan of free speech, but I think this behavior shuts down people with differing opinions than his own; this fosters "group think" sentiments that could be detrimental to maintaining a diversity of ideas. I never experienced this form of behavior in industrial companies/private sector

  1. What sort of guidelines should an administrator follow concerning mass emails that are politically based?

  2. If this behavior is inappropriate, would it be appropriate to address this form of behavior?

  3. If I were to address it, which party or parties would be best to approach?

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    You probably want to tag this question united-states, because any answer you're going to get is going to be based on local culture/laws. – user9646 Jan 31 '17 at 10:46
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    Are you disturbed by political emails, or because you don't agree with the contents? For example if the dean comments on whether students or staff are at risk if they leave the USA, depending on their nationality, that's important and it's quite unavoidable that it is political. – gnasher729 Jan 31 '17 at 10:59
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    No. This is part of a trend. Its oddly frequent, hyperbolic, opinionated, and sometimes plagued with misinformation. This never happened with my experience in the industrial private sector, which is why I have found it off-putting and unprofessional. – M11293 Jan 31 '17 at 11:04
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    I personally think it's inappropriate. However, it does happen in my institution too, though to a lesser extent. Last year, an email went round saying how dreadful a particular political event was, thereby assuming that that was the only valid opinion worth upholding. It didn't recognise the fact that people could have had a different opinion. I find it best to just ignore such emails. There is enough political upheaval around presently without my encouraging it through a response. – C26 Jan 31 '17 at 11:29
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    At our institution (large, public, U.S.), this is officially permitted by the faculty union contract. It is used in this way by only a small number of faculty. We had to endure a reactionary, right-wing "newsletter" every month for many years (until the faculty member in question deceased). This will surely vary by institution. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 31 '17 at 17:37
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In your question, I note two (different) items:

  1. Sending political emails
  2. Embedding an opinion

Sending political emails

I can certainly imagine that a department administrator needs to send political emails: there are often political situations that have a certain influence on a department/school or its students and staff (e.g. a new law or decree). In general, I believe that messages sent to mass email addresses should be used to provide information that is applicable to all who receive this message. As a guideline, therefore, I believe that such email should be without any opinion.

Embedding an opinion

I believe that personal opinions and emotions should be dealt with in personal circles, and not be shared with the general public over mass email addresses (there are public forums, but then viewers have a choice in reading or not reading). The sender does not know what these emotions brings about with the receivers: it can have significant consequences for people who have dealt with similar personal difficulties. And, strong opinions can cause strong reactions, again with possible negative consequences for the sender as well as other receivers.

As such, I think this behavior should be addressed. Many universities have an Student Ombuds Office, where any issue about university policy, bureaucracy, and conflicts can be discussed confidentially. If it bothers you, contact them, and then they can guide you further and inform you about the university staff member breaching university policies, for example.

Of course, an administrator may also have been asked to inform students and staff of the institutional opinion. This most likely means that a (board) meeting has resulted in a decision from the institution, which is then passed on to all involved in the institution. These messages describe the position of the institution on a certain question, but most certainly exclude emotional descriptors.

In short

The staff member's behavior could be against policies the university has set for mass email usage (using it for both political reasons as well as personal interest). Check the policy for this, and use the Ombuds Office for further advice and guidance on what can be done.

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    I think there is a third option to address, which I might call "institutional opinions"; where the administrator gives their professional (not personal) opinion as to whether the the political situation is good or bad for the institution or particular aspects of its mission, and whether the institution ought to support or oppose the situation on those grounds. I think this sort of thing is appropriate in the scope of an administrator's duties. – Nate Eldredge Jan 31 '17 at 17:41
  • I generally agree with the above answer. I am not the only person in the department that finds these emails a bit strange and distracting. For example, this department chair actually describes how they feel in writing via email. This is very different than just presenting some facts, concerns, and available resources (albeit with a little political spin). Speaking, in email, how "sad" and "distraught" they are over federal policy changes is a bit immature for someone in a leadership position; it reflects poorly on the strength of the department. – M11293 Jan 31 '17 at 20:02
  • @NateEldredge, I've modified my answer to include the institutional opinion aspect. – DoubleYou Feb 4 '17 at 16:22
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What you are describing sounds very unprofessional to me, and it is the kind of thing that detracts from the culture of a university department and fosters a culture of "groupthink". It is legitimate for administrators to send mass-emails communicating changes (or proposed changes) in government policy that affect the university, but even here it is appropriate to communicate this in a politically neutral way that does not presume the political position of the email recipients. Sometimes the high-level administrators at a university will develop an institutional position on the matter and communicate this position, but they should be aware that this position will not generally match the opinion of all academics on campus, and so it is not appropriate to communicate this institutional position in a way that pressures people to adopt that view.

There are plenty of channels for administrators and academics to form groups on campus that are interested in political discussions, where group emails on political topics would be appropriate. It is legitimate for staff to form groups that want to discuss particular political topics, and don't mind getting politically-loaded emails. It is different when an administrator sends mass-emails to a captured audience to proselytise their political position.

Aside from the basic issue of professionalism, if administrators insist on sending mass-emails proselytising a particular political view then they are inviting mass-email replies arguing those views, and they have no legitimate standing to complain if a dissenting academic (or other email recipient) writes back a mass-reply-email publicly challenging their views. I suspect you will find that the kind of people who use their administrative positions for these purposes are also averse to being publicly challenged. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

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