OPINION | Toeing the line


As a columnist, my personal views and my job coincide. But for some jobs, that’s probably not such a great idea. One such job is public relations, in which you become the spokesperson for someone else or some company and advertise and defend the views and actions of that institution.

It may seem odd then, and a bit inappropriate, for Dan Wolter, director of University News Service, to be expressing political views over his personal social networking sites while simultaneously posting UMNews events or updates on the University Twitter feed.

His tweet on April 11 is an example of that political expression: “Our state budget problems would be much less if we got SOMETHING from all of the casino gambling in state.”

Not only does that tweet fall under commenting on state budget and funding, an issue directly related to the University, but it has the potential to offend American Indian populations. Wolter is the main thoroughfare between the University and the media. He facilitates contact between reporters and information ranging from interviews with administrators to salary data.

“I’m often a name that people see in the paper … so there are people who that’s the only means by which they know me, as a University spokesperson,” said Wolter.

“Everybody’s got a job, and everyone’s got a function, and I don’t think people in public relations necessarily should be requested to forfeit their political views.”

Wolter has also served on the Metropolitan Council for five years, the same amount of time he has been at the University. During that time, he has recused himself from dealing with issues between the Met Council and the University, most recently those involving the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line. But this hasn’t stopped him from expressing his ideas on national or state issues.

“The important thing is that you never cross the line – you will never see me taking positions on University-related issues on my personal space. To me, that approach is a bit of a conflict,” Wolter said. “Having a view on national health care reform doesn’t directly impact my job at the University, so to speak.”

But for the voice of the University, it feels a little like Wolter is talking out of three sides of his mouth. One side is the University, one side is the Metropolitan Council, and one side is his personal political opinion. The worry is whether he’s keeping it all straight.

On April 22, Wolter tweeted from his personal account: “Colleen Rowley is here … I guess Karl Rove is bringing people back to the cause of freedom” in response to a speech Rove gave on campus, sponsored by the University College Republicans.

This same day, on the same account, he tweeted: “Did you know that ZiagenTM, a leading HIV medication, was developed at the UMN? Support the U of M AIDS Walk team!”

Supporting University events is one thing, but having a personal opinion on certain events held on campus, albeit not directly University-sponsored, seems to push the line between personal statements and University duties.

While Wolter’s comments are far from a political manifesto, they raise questions of where and when the line should be drawn between professionalism and the freedom of social networking.

The University presents an atmosphere that promotes free speech and thought, as well as a place rife with social networking opportunities. But the University also has commitments in welcoming all viewpoints, and while those who work and attend are encouraged to express their opinions, the University shouldn’t take a side.

Raymond Duvall, chairman of the University Department of Political Science, is no stranger to walking the line between presenting an open academic atmosphere and acknowledging the inherent personal ideologies we all hold.

“Some of my colleagues prefer simply to be upfront with students and to say, ‘Here is where I am politically,’ ” Duvall said. “Others of us see that it is our responsibility to go out of our way to bring various different perspectives in … revealing in some ways where it is I come down on some of these things, but not doing that in such a way that serves a sort of proselytizing or advocacy or politically mobilizing role.”

The phrase we’re all looking for here is conflict of interest and that magical line between personal views and professional duties. Social networking has provided a new platform in which to stage this debate and offers new complications. While people have always been vocal about their values and ideologies, social networking broadcasts those views publically, inviting others to see and ascribe those ideas to you.

But what is the point of having an academically free atmosphere if no one is free to express their opinions, even those who are involved in the public relations of the University? Obviously, not much.

So the question is, could social networking updates coming from the mouth that serves as the voice for the University of Minnesota negatively affect the portrayal of the University as a place that promotes academic freedom?

Or could this raise questions on what media outlets have more access to the University?

What’s clear is Wolter is toeing the line.

Nora Leinen welcomes comments at nleinen@mndaily.com.