Official school email usurped by Dean to lobby against tax reform

The University of North Dakota’s School of Graduate Studies recently sent out an email encouraging students to lobby their elected officials to oppose the Republican tax reform plan.

While the email began by detailing several of the negative effects the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will have on graduate studies, such as the repeal of tax codes that allow for exemptions for tuition waivers, it concluded by actively encouraging students to contact their elected officials and urge them to vote against the legislation.

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“Congress needs to hear from students and graduates that we oppose this legislation and these cuts to the education programs,” the email suggests. “If you feel inclined to do so, we would encourage you to contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives about this Act in terms of its potential effects on you and your families.”

The email, addressed to “all graduate students,” provides a form letter for students to send to their legislators to simplify the process, but recommends adding a personal touch to increase its effectiveness.

“While you may certainly feel free to simply adopt this form letter, we would suggest that you personalize the message as much as possible, since personal messages are often given greater weight than a form letter,” the email notes.

The letter itself was crafted by the Council of Graduate Studies (CGS), which is encouraging all graduate students to take action against the bill, which passed through the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday.

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CGS’ website provides students with several resources, such as “letter templates, a tax policy issue brief, and tax reform scenarios,” while offering three suggested “actions” graduates can take.

“Contact your government relations representatives and your campus administration to let them know how the proposed benefit eliminations will affect your graduate students,” CGS advises, encouraging students to work “with them to communicate to your Members of Congress the importance of these tax provisions to the ability of your graduate students to finance their education.”

Additionally, CGS suggests encouraging fellow students to “join you in your advocacy efforts,” and supporting “them as they explain in their own words how changes in the tax code would affect them and their families.”

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The University of North Dakota has since responded to the matter, telling the Say Anything Blog, which first exposed the email, that while the bill would “almost certainly have a significant negative impact” on the university, the “writer without question made a mistake in using university resources to send an email to graduate students to suggest that they take action.”

The school indicated that it has identified the writer—insisting that he “feels badly about his mistake”—but did not reveal the individual’s name or affiliation with CGS.

“Informing the students about the proposed bill would have been one thing; advocating a particular action is another thing,” University Spokesman Peter Johnson commented.

“Both President Kennedy and I have visited with the individual and he feels badly about his mistake,” Johnson added. “He now understands how and why the email was not appropriate and not in keeping with the university’s guidelines.”

Campus Reform has reached out to UND to inquire as to how the individual came to have access to the official school email account, and a spokesperson confirmed the identity as Associate Dean Chris Nelson, saying that he "has responsibilities in the School of Graduate Studies and therefore would have had access to the email address."

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski