Professor receives slew of backlash after f-word e-mail

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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A University of Iowa professor who sent a vulgar e-mail to members of the UI College Republicans has seen an outpouring of negative e-mails from students, graduates, and community members.

UI anthropology/women's studies Professor Ellen Lewin has received more than 370 e-mails in the last two days, expressing strong distaste for the message she sent Monday. The e-mails were obtained by The Daily Iowan through an open records request.

In response to the College Republicans' universitywide e-mail encouraging students to take part in "Conservative Coming Out Week," Lewin sent an e-mail saying, "FUCK YOU, REPUBLICANS."

In an e-mail exchange between Lewin and UI spokesman Tom Moore regarding a public records request for the messages, Lewin said, "Do you really want all these? They're pretty ugly."

The disapproving e-mails ranged from swearword-riddled rants to detailed repudiations of Lewin's comments. Many e-mails to Lewin included foul and sexually oriented slurs, some of which The Daily Iowan chose not to publish due to their offensive content.

"You're a cartoon. You make my 10-year-old grandson look like St. Augustine," "You're a terrible human being," and "I'm glad you suffer," were among the statements.

A professor named Jacque from Florida said he was "appalled and ashamed" that she could have used such vulgar language toward students.

"As a psychologist, I highly recommend you seek counseling for your poor impulse control and unresolved rage and hate for anyone with a different view as yours, that is pathological!" he wrote.

However, Lewin also received some encouraging e-mails.

One graduate student in the Anthropology Department supported Lewin, telling her he "completely and utterly [agrees] with every thing you said."

UI senior Chris Page, who served as Student Government director of sustainability this year, also supported Lewin, thanking her for sending the e-mails to the group.

"Hopefully, some day in the future, the UI administration will see your point of view," Page wrote.

UI President Sally Mason also received hundreds of e-mails regarding the incident. Senders said they were "outraged" with Lewin's comments. Some said they planned to pull support from the university, while others called for Lewin's firing. At least one e-mailer said she no longer plans to send her daughter to the UI.

Despite the harsh e-mails, Moore said he has not "received any report of a credible threat" to Lewin.
Moore also said it is far too early to speculate about any action the university may or may not take.

"Those decisions would be considered confidential personnel matters," he said.

Moore sent an e-mail to Lewin assuring her the media attention and controversy would pass.

Meanwhile, one expert said the polarizing response to the UI incident could be an indicator of a national lack of civil discourse. But student political leaders at the UI said they didn't think it would have a lasting effect on communication among their organizations.

Lewin apologized Wednesday for her remarks, saying they were prompted by what she saw as disrespect toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, union workers, and animal-rights activists.

Republican and Democrat student leaders both voiced concern with the language of the message, despite their differing opinions on "Conservative Coming Out Week."

Nate Fiala, the president-elect of the UI Democrats, said the groups recognizes Lewin's comments were "rash and inappropriate," but he also said the College Republican's "coming out" campaign rhetoric is offensive to some members of the Iowa City community.

"Iowa is known for being civil," he said. "We are known for having intelligent conversations."

In the aftermath of the controversy, the UI Democrats decided not to take part in the scheduled Red vs. Blue kickball and football games Thursday afternoon.

Members of the conservative group, including President of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans Natalie Ginty, said they were "very disappointed" to miss out on the opportunity to meet with their peers.

Fiala said the UI Democrats have decided to be "completely neutral" to the events on campus.

But in general, leaders from the student political groups said the incident is not likely to halt inter-party cooperation.

Ginty said she and other members of the College Republicans have personal relationships with members of opposing political groups on campus. She said Lewin's response to the student group is an example of one of few people with such outspoken rhetoric but not reflective of the entire party.

"Those people do not help the nation go any further," Ginty said. "They hinder any type of working together."

John Twillman, the chairman of the UI College Republicans, said he's received negative e-mails but said he only wants more students to be active in politics when they are often apathetic.

"Anything we do, somebody is going to have a problem with it," he said.

Mason sent an e-mail to the university community Wednesday afternoon, supporting student engagement based on political lines.

"Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way," Mason wrote in the e-mail. "Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior."

H. Brinton Milward, director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse based at the University of Arizona, said Lewin's remarks alone don't qualify as civil or uncivil discourse.

"Somebody basically said a profane word," Milward said. "There is no real debate or discussion."

But the reaction that followed the incident could be reflective of a lack of civil discourse on the national scale, he said.

"You can have strong opinions on any particular issue, but democracy works far better when you view what other people say as legitimate whether you agree with them at all," Milward said.

Timothy Hagle, the College Republicans' faculty adviser who defended the group following the release of Lewin's e-mail, said part of the problem is the inflamed rhetoric is associated with both liberal and conservative parties.

"We have to get out of that 'who started it' kind of thing," he said. "We can disagree without being disagreeable."

It's too early to tell how Lewin's comments will affect student political involvement on campus, Hagle said.

Fiala said his acquaintances from different ideologies recognize the backlash as bad publicity for all involved.

"I actually see people from all around the political spectrum not saying, 'Yes, this is a good thing,' " Fiala said. "Because there are other ways to voice dissatisfaction with opposing political viewpoints."

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