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Lewin e-mail deserves measured response from the UI

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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This school year, the University of Iowa has dealt with its fair share of faculty and staff mishaps, from Professor Gary Hunninghake's resignation to staff members illegally accessing football players' medical records.

The latest controversy, however, bears little resemblance to these more egregious examples of misconduct. After UI anthropology/women's studies Professor Ellen Lewin replied to a mass e-mail from the UI College Republicans with a burst of profanity, the story hit the media with a vengeance; Lewin has received e-mails demanding her resignation and questioning her efficacy as a professor.

UI officials have not yet announced if they will take any disciplinary action. If they do, we hope they'll keep in mind some modicum of rational thought; while Lewin's e-mail was certainly inappropriate, it is also a relatively minor infraction. Lewin should not face any discipline more rigorous than a stern reprimand.

There is no evidence that this was anything more than a momentary lapse in professionalism. Professors, like students, are justified in having their own political perspectives — as long as they do not get in the way of their duties. If Lewin were engaged in a pattern of harassing conservative students, strict punitive measures would be justified; an inappropriately vulgar expression of outrage is another matter.

Natalie Ginty, the chairwoman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, told the DI Editorial Board that the group is not calling for Lewin's firing or resignation — though she still wants a formal apology.

"We don't consider her e-mails sent late last week an apology," Ginty said. In addition to a personal apology, Ginty said Lewin should send out an apology directed at the entire UI community in the form of a mass e-mail.

UI spokesman Tom Moore told The Daily Iowan last week that it's too soon to speak about any action university administrative officials may take and that the decision would be considered a private matter.

Given that the dispute has reached national media, any action taken against Lewin should be acknowledged to the public and should be made in a timely manner. But Lewin needn't engage in the public self-abasement of a mass apology — a simple, respectful apology to the wronged parties would do much to set things right.

A professor who uses profanity in an e-mail to students of differing viewpoints should not face more outrage than a professor who fakes his own mugging. The disproportionate response to this case is indicative of a Manichean partisan culture in which both sides thrive on misplaced martyrdom.

Harsh punitive measures would only serve to legitimize the exaggerated indignation, and our rhetorical culture deserves better.

A simple reprimand would remind Lewin of her duties as a professor: to hold herself as an example of intellectual, professional competence and a model of reasoned argumentation. She failed to uphold these traits last week, but she has a chance to compensate in the future.


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