The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Professor barred from university system for class that offered course credit to students who protested Kavanaugh

Brett M. Kavanaugh testifies at a Sept. 27 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his Supreme Court nomination. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The response was immediate — and incendiary — when people learned that students at the University of Southern Maine had been offered course credit if they joined a bus full of people planning to protest Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and lobby Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to vote against it.

Hundreds of people called the university, including furious alumni, upset students, and prospective students and their parents. Critics saw the class as an outrageous abuse of the public university’s mission, a case of liberal academics trying to indoctrinate students. “It was fierce, ferocious … and threatening,” said Glenn Cummings, the president of the university.

This week, he announced that Susan Feiner, the recently retired longtime faculty member who had offered the one-credit course, would be barred from teaching at USM and any of the state’s other public universities.

University leaders called it a rogue action by a former employee.

Feiner, whose father was the plaintiff in a well-known Supreme Court case after he was arrested for a speech that angered a crowd, saw it very differently. “Hecklers were permitted to shut down what they disagreed with,” she said.

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Feiner, who was a tenured professor of economics at USM, had been outspoken as a faculty union leader and an advocate for students who said they had been sexually assaulted. She retired in September. But a National Education Association grant had funded the university’s faculty union for the Frances Perkins Initiative for Social Justice Education, intended to create high-impact pop-up classes for busy students.

After hearing Kavanaugh and a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct testify, Feiner had the idea of getting students on a bus to Washington for a lesson in civic engagement and a chance to witness history.

Cummings told the campus Wednesday that Feiner had been barred from teaching “for her role in listing and promoting an unauthorized class that advanced her personal political agenda. The course was promptly rescinded and university officials took immediate steps to ensure that institutional resources were not … used to support one-sided political activism.”

Feiner said she didn’t think the class was a partisan effort. “Any student from any political perspective at USM would have been welcome on that bus. … I think it was taken as partisan because the Republicans in Maine turned it into something that was partisan."

The executive director of the Maine GOP did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this month, the party issued a “RED ALERT” on its Facebook page saying USM was offering a free college credit and a free bus ride to Washington to protest Collins, calling it “shocking and unacceptable,” and noting, “The event page goes so far as to ask if STUDENTS are okay with being ARRESTED."

The main organizer of the bus to Washington was Diane Russell, a former Democratic state legislator and gubernatorial candidate in Maine. Everyone on the bus, other than some reporters covering the protest, opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the court, Russell said.

A photo in the Portland Press Herald shows Feiner leaving the bus holding a printed sign aloft: “A sexual predator does not belong on the Supreme Court.”

Russell said the bus was paid for by the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal advocacy group.

She said USM’s leaders had sent a message to faculty members, and to women, with their decision: “If you’re willing to stand up and fight for social justice ... you will be attacked and vilified.”

Feiner’s father, Irving, gave a speech about civil rights and other political issues in 1949 while he was a student at Syracuse University, said Roy Gutterman, a communications law professor at Syracuse who is writing a book about him. A crowd gathered around Irving Feiner, upset by his words and suspicious he might be a communist sympathizer.

Instead of protecting Irving Feiner from the angry group around him, police arrested him for disorderly conduct. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail — which he served after losing his case, Feiner v. New York, before the Supreme Court.

“This was really one of the first of the McCarthy-era free speech cases,” with an official shutting down unpopular ideas because they provoked such an angry reaction, said Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse. He said the "heckler’s veto” has been happening lately on college campuses, as at the University of California at Berkeley last year, when protesters upset by a conservative speaker set fires and smashed windows, causing the event to be canceled.

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The University of Maine System’s board of trustees — a politically appointed panel that includes Susan Collins’s brother, Samuel Collins — passed a policy this spring that worried some faculty members, who thought it might limit their free speech.

The policy does not ban partisan activity on the campuses, University of Maine System spokesman Dan Demeritt explained in an email, but “makes it clear that our publicly funded institutions are to remain nonpartisan and impartial.” He gave the example of a faculty member who appears in a campaign ad, but with a disclaimer that notes she is speaking as an individual.

Cummings said it has always been clear that professors can discuss political issues in class, but that they should provide a range of perspectives and let students settle on their own opinions.

Feiner has the right to voice her own opinion, he said, but she crossed a significant line when she used the name of the university to promote her political agenda. “That is why we felt the need to be firm,” Cummings said.

USM’s provost, Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, said that when officials heard concerns and began to investigate the class, they learned that there was never a course proposal or committee review of the syllabus, as required.

Feiner isn’t an employee any longer, Uzzi said, and didn’t have a contract to teach the class.

Feiner acknowledged that she didn’t go through the regular process for creating the pop-up class: With things moving quickly in Washington, “I was just bulling through it,” she said. But she said university officials haven’t been straightforward about why they shut it down.

Uzzi and Cummings said they have both known Feiner for many years but have lost trust in her.

“She’s a spitfire,” Cummings said, someone with strong views and a commitment to action. “But you have to use good judgment.”