Most of us are familiar with the recent brouhaha regarding Representative Collin Peterson’s visit to campus. Numerous national media outlets have covered the story, many times causing embarrassment for Concordia. College spokesperson Roger Degerman issued an official statement to the media in which he stated the whole ordeal was “an important learning opportunity.” Any observer of public relations, however, knows that the “learning opportunity” is not just for Kate Engstrom—the student responsible for the seemingly secret recording of the longtime Seventh District Congressman—but also for Degerman’s office (and other involved college officials) who deepened their involvement in the story by acting haphazardly.
Look, stealthily recording an elected representative is not in good taste. It demonstrates a lack of respect and obnoxiousness that is usually only reserved for surrogates of Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly. More consequentially, it has the potential to scare away other elected officials from visiting our campus. In almost every regard, it shines a negative light on our campus.
To be clear: I don’t agree with how Engstrom went about recording Rep. Peterson, but I also don’t think it really matters. My disagreement with her methodology is just that—disagreement. Most concur there was nothing revelatory in Peterson’s comments. At the end of the day, Collin Peterson is still one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Party. He still will continue to disappoint mainstream and left-leaning Democrats.
Here is where this story gets messy.
According to an article published on the conservative website Daily Caller, college president William Craft allegedly encouraged Engstrom—through her academic adviser—to apologize to Peterson. (President Craft, according to a college statement, did personally apologize to the Congressman.) Steadfast, Engstrom herself refused to apologize, and the college continued its quest over Mid-Semester break to see if she violated any college policy and if disciplinary action would be taken against her.
It’s important to note that there is no written recording policy for students. In our YouTube world, this omission seems potentially problematic—and not just when visitors come to campus. For example, a student could record a faculty lecture and mischaracterize them, posting it online and garnering attention.
And while some have suggested to me that the creation of numerous specific student conduct policies is unnecessary, I remind them that when the college offers an official sanction it should be in response to a specific violation. Clearly this did not occur for Engstrom (although nor did the sanction). Without an honor code, we’re left with a lot of room for debate.
The college also went overboard in trying to distance themselves from Engstrom. After reading the Daily Caller story, one notices that the college itself eventually became a part of the story.
This, to me, is the most obvious failure of our PR folks. All that should have been done on the college’s behalf was to issue a statement saying Engstrom does not represent the views of Concordia College (as mentioned in the Student Rights section of our handbook). Period. Any talk of apologizing or disciplinary action should have been reserved within the halls of Lorentzen.
Our Student Handbook only strengthens Engstrom’s rights to confront Peterson. Under the Rights and Responsibilities of Inquiry and Expression our handbook states: “Except for ceremonial occasions, speakers must accept as a condition of their appearance the right of their audience to question or challenge statements made in the address.”
There was no such question and answer period after Peterson’s talk. Ceremonial or not, Engstrom merely demonstrated her rights as a student committed to further inquiry of an issue she deemed important. Must we agree with her? No.
The college handbook makes it explicitly clear that “the college be not arbitrary in its actions” regarding investigation and responses to student conduct. And while our community of inquiry and engagement does and should have its limits, this debacle demonstrates ill-equipped official responses to a very public matter, a call for clearer policies, and the power and tact required of public relations.
Matt Hansen, a fourth-year student, writes The People’s Republic of Matt, a politics column in Opinions. He double majors in political science and sociology at Concordia. On Twitter: @MattHansen