Sept. 24, 2008 -- University of Massachusetts officials on Monday quashed efforts by an Amherst campus chaplain to offer two college credits to any student willing to campaign in New Hampshire this fall for Democrat Barack Obama.
Chaplain Kent Higgins told students in a Sept. 18 e-mail, "If you're scared about the prospects for this election, you're not alone. The most important way to make a difference in the outcome is to activate yourself. It would be just fine with McCain if Obama supporters just think about helping, then sleep in and stay home between now and Election Day."
Higgins added that an unnamed "sponsor" in the university's History Department would offer a two-credit independent study for students willing to canvass -- identify supporters -- or volunteer on behalf of the Democratic nominee.
"It is relatively (easy) to do late add-ons," Higgins wrote.
But university officials disavowed themselves of the effort after inquiries Monday by The Associated Press. They said it could run afoul of state ethics laws banning on-the-job political activity, as well as university policy.
"There is no independent study for credit in the History Department that involves partisan political work, and no such activity has ever been approved," said a statement issued by UMass-Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.
Audrey Alstadt, chairwoman of the History Department, said: "The History Department supports free exchange of ideas, the study of the human experience including the political system in the U.S. and respects the diversity of opinion and experience of our faculty, staff and students. We do not engage in or sponsor partisan political activity. We certainly do not give academic credit for participation in partisan politics."
Higgins said he never intended for the program to be limited to supporters of Obama, a senator from Illinois. Regardless of the opinions expressed in his e-mail, he said he would also have been open to those students who wanted to canvass for the Republican candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"The idea was there just to see if we could help with folks who want to be active with any of the campaigns in New Hampshire," he said during an interview with the AP. "We have to be bipartisan, multilateral."
Higgins refused to identify the History Department sponsor and referred all further questions to university officials.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party criticized the effort.
"We're disappointed, but frankly not surprised, that the liberal academic elite have once again decided to promote one candidate over another," said GOP spokesman Barney Keller. "Our tax dollars pay their salaries so they can teach our children how to make up their own minds, not to advance a partisan political agenda."
Blaguszewski said Higgins is one of about a dozen chaplains from different faiths working in Amherst, the flagship campus among the university's five schools.
He said Higgins had previously arranged History Department credit for students working on disaster relief efforts or other humanitarian ventures, and had raised the idea of similarly rewarding students who got involved in the political process during the 2008 election.
When university officials saw a portion of his e-mail, though, they changed their opinion.
"The History Department chair feels that what they were told was misleading, and then when the details of this emerged through the correspondence, they said, `Hey, this is not appropriate and it's not going to happen,"' said Blaguszewski.