Students must choose: Class or caucus

Shannon Mccarty

The 2016 Iowa Caucus for the presidential election will have the attention of the entire nation Monday night, but some students at Iowa State may be in class instead of casting their vote at the caucuses.

Whether the university should cancel classes Monday night has been a debated issue with caucus night nearing.

“I understand why professors don’t want to do it,” said Jana Byars, assistant professor of history. “I can envision a class you simply can’t miss.”

Those types of classes are primarily labs and graduate classes, which is just one of the reasons why Provost Jonathan Wickert and Faculty Senate President Rob Wallace have decided to not cancel classes that interfere with the caucus.

“We have never canceled class for the Iowa Caucuses in the past,” Wickert said. “This is simply the academic calendar for the university.’

The University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa also do not cancel classes that interfere with the caucus.

The date of the Iowa Caucuses is determined by an agreement between the two heads of each major political party.

“Ultimately when Iowa holds its caucuses is a function of when New Hampshire is going to do their primary,” said Mack Shelley, university professor of political science.

Shelley said in the past other states have tried to push up their primary in order to try and be more prominent in the presidential race. This is what caused the 2008 caucus to be on Jan. 3 and the 2004 caucus to be on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Not having class on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year is another reason why Wickert and Wallace do not want to cancel classes Monday.

“You try to get a balance between making sure students are learning the material in that class and that we don’t cancel things such that we have to compress material in the remaining weeks of the semester,” Wickert said.

But Byars chose to cancel her Monday night class, Historiography and Research Writing, saying there is enough room in her schedule and her students do a majority of their work outside of class.

“The first of the nation status in Iowa is incredibly important,” Byars said. “I don’t want to keep [students] from something they can do once every four or eight years.”

Byars accepts the current policy leaving it up to faculty discretion because she said it does need to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Audrey McCombs, graduate student in English, creative writing and environment, ecology and evolutionary biology and conservation biology, is concerned about graduate students’ ability to caucus.

“Graduate student instructors can get fired if they cancel class,” McCombs said. “That’s a big deal.”

Wallace said if a graduate student wanted to go caucus they would need to find a qualified substitute and notify administration.

Graduate students do not have built-in absences like many undergraduate classes do, which means an absence can more greatly affect their grade more.

“In most classes an undergraduate skipping one class isn’t a big deal,” McCombs said.

“[In the political science department], we’re not too happy if a grad student misses class more than once,” Shelley said.

McCombs emailed her teacher the first week of spring semester after noticing her Monday night class would interfere with the caucus. She initially got a negative response from her instructor.

McCombs went on to contact Wickert by email and suggested that interfering classes be canceled. Wickert replied saying classes have never been canceled for caucus night, but that her input was valued.

“Nobody should tell me, ‘If you go vote you will be penalized,’” McCombs said.

McCombs’s teacher later apologized. The instructor also had a conversation with the class, which led to the decision to cancel it in lieu of Monday’s caucus. 

“[The instructor] handled it very well,” McCombs said.

There are 49 Monday evening classes with a total of 884 students, said Rob Schweers, the Provost’s office’s program director. All classes that interfere are Monday-only classes.

Out of those 884 students, 22 are in 500- and 600-level classes. Wickert also pointed out there is a difference between a three-hour lab that meets once a night and a one-hour class that meets three times a week.

“The faculty are very concerned about losing time,” Wallace said. “They don’t like losing time with students.”

Schweers and Wickert published an article on Inside Iowa State, stating, “Decisions about whether to excuse class for events like the caucuses, athletic contests, or other events are best handled locally and on a case-by-case basis between faculty and students.”

It is important to note that intercollegiate athletic events are excused, and the caucus is not specifically cited in the excused absence policy.

The excused absence policy contains seven sections: veteran attendance, field trips/curricular-related activities, excusable absences for non-curricular reasons, extracurricular activities as a representative of the university, other extracurricular activities, military service and court appearances.

Instructors are required to announce their policy at the beginning of the course.

The instructor determines whether the student’s absence will be excused under other extracurricular activities.

When asked if the caucus would fall under this category, Wallace said, “I would not want to call it an extracurricular activity.”

Wickert and Wallace both said they encourage students who are passionate about caucusing to speak with their instructor ahead of time and try to find a way to come to an agreement.

“Most students can make an impassioned enough argument with their professors,” Byars said. “Most professors are pretty reasonable.”

For some though, it’s the principle that matters. 

“I have a constitutional right to go vote,” McCombs said.

This is one argument that Shelley said is valid, but he isn’t sure it would hold up if a student were to go to court.

“I guess one could argue that in terms of who would be more disadvantaged by students not being able to show up,” Shelly said. “Bernie’s campaign could say, ‘Look, this is our fundamental electoral base, so what you’re doing is favoriting somebody’s campaign over our campaign and that’s undue favoritism.’”

Byars said there is some inconsistency with those who decide to not allow students to caucus, saying adults often deplore young adults who do not get involved in the political process.

“I think that reflects what our very limited idea of what education is,” Byars said. “The point of you being here is that you become better people, and you become engaged citizens in the world around you.”

Scheduling conflicts is just one reason the caucus process receives national criticism. Shelley pointed out there are many reasons people miss the caucus, whether it is because of having a young child or three written papers due the next day.

“You’ll think twice if you want to exercise your right to vote or get your other work done,” Shelley said.

McCombs said she knew people who had work conflicts and had to take a vacation day in order to cast their vote.

A primary would require much less time commitment and get around the issues of class and work, but the odds that Iowa will ever see a primary are low, Shelley said.

“It’s a near guarantee that Iowa would lose its first in the nation state if it were to switch to a primary,” Shelley said.