Emmer flap at Hamline is a lesson about bias

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2011 - 12:55 AM

Tom Emmer thought he had a deal to teach at Hamline. And then the offer of a job as an adjunct "executive in residence" professor was withdrawn.

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Tom Emmer

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Tom Emmer thought he had a deal.

Emmer, the Republican who lost the governor's race to Mark Dayton, had been in talks with Hamline University to teach a business class at the St. Paul school. He had even had discussions and exchanged e-mails about the syllabus and textbooks.

And then the offer of a job as an adjunct "executive in residence" professor was withdrawn. Emmer says a few faculty members who didn't like his conservative politics -- especially his anti-same-sex marriage stance -- had started to complain.

"Everybody who knows me knows my skin is pretty thick," said Emmer. "This is probably the most personal feeling I've ever had."

Wow. News flash: Tom Emmer, the bombastic, tough-talking and often abrasive politician and talk show host, has feelings. He actually sounded hurt.

As Emmer and I chatted, the story got stranger and stranger. It sounded like something you'd see on the television show "The Good Wife." Check that: It was pretty much the plot of the show two weeks ago when a character playing a professor was fired for her conservative, anti-gay views. (Emmer says he isn't familiar with the show).

Back to real life.

Emmer admits he did not have a signed contract. But if e-mails he shared with me are legitimate, which Hamline declined to confirm, then it certainly looks like Hamline was ready to give him a job. In one exchange, Kris Norman-Major, director of the program that oversees business, wrote this to another faculty member:

"For the spring we are offering a session during the day and Tom Emmer is going to teach it. This is Tom's first time teaching the course. I have given him a copy of your syllabus but am hoping you would be able to let him know exactly what text you are using and anything else that might be helpful for him."

Another note from Anne McCarthy, dean of the business school, who Emmer says offered him the job: "Please note, if you have another development and don't want to come to Hamline on a full-time basis, you can always teach next spring as an adjunct to get your feet wet and embark on a teaching career."

Hamline is a private entity. Emmer is a free-market guy, and even he admits the school has the right to hire, or not hire, anyone for any reason, or no reason. Just as a conservative Christian school is allowed to pass on, say, a socialist-atheist professor, so can Hamline, which is Methodist, pass on a guy whose views don't match its values.

Emmer's views are pretty well known to anyone with a pulse in Minnesota. There may be other reasons not to hire Emmer, such as his lack of experience or his history of litigation. But it sure seems Hamline made the decision on his politics.

McCarthy and Norman-Major did not respond for this story. Hamline said that an agreement was never finalized.

But Jim Bonilla, an associate professor in the business school who is also involved in diversity and gender issues, says Emmer's views on a range of topics directly conflict with school values. Bonilla was one staff member who complained about the hire.

"I don't know how this got to the point that it did," said Bonilla. "[Administrators] didn't tell anyone. They were playing with fire, and we're all getting burned."

"It's not just the issue of gay marriage," said Bonilla. "[Emmer] has said that you can't be a patriotic American and be a Democrat. There is an expectation that a teacher will think people can disagree and still be patriots."

On that point, Bonilla and Emmer agree. Emmer says that quote was taken out of context, and that he encourages civil discourse.

Yes, you heard that right.

"These people don't know me," said Emmer. "Bonilla thinks I have horns and a tail. Why don't they give me the opportunity to sit down with them, and get to know me? Isn't that what the university is supposed to be?"

I have no idea if Emmer would be a good teacher. He's certainly not known as an intellectual or deep thinker, but a lot of colleges are convalescent homes for retired or failed Democrats, so he's certainly not a stretch. I'm guessing he'd give a lot of students the opportunity to hone their arguments, and there's value in that. My two best professors in political science were a socialist and the then-head of the GOP. They both made me think, and that's what education is about. Hamline could have handled this worse, but I'm not sure how.

"I do think that the Emmer problem gets at a core problem of academic freedom at universities," Steven Schier, professor and political pundit at Carleton College in Northfield, wrote in an e-mail. "Administrators do not challenge faculty judgments ... so, through the hiring process, left liberal opinion -- widespread among professors -- dominates college faculties. I think the Emmer case is a rare example of an institution being caught with its ideological biases showing."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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