Update from One Merriman Lane | Letter Regarding the Visit of the Vice President of the United States

Dear Ripon College community,

Over the past couple of days I have received dozens of communications from alumni, students, staff, former students, faculty, former faculty and people that live in the town of Ripon regarding the visit of Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, to campus earlier today. Some of these messages opposed his visit, others supported it. Some of the messages opposed his policies, but still supported allowing the visit. And a few supported his visit but opposed our requirements that everyone wear a mask.

The most difficult emails for me to read from members of our community, some of whom I know well, are the ones that expressed personal disappointment in me and the College for allowing the Vice President to speak on campus. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I am also mindful that it is my job to make tough decisions when there is not a clear solution that will please everyone. With that in mind, I wanted you to hear about my thought process. I don’t expect everyone to agree or understand, but as one alumni critic noted, “you need to own this.” And I am okay with that.

We didn’t invite Vice President Pence to come to Ripon, but everyone knows that Wisconsin is one of the most important states in the upcoming presidential election. I expect that there will be candidate requests to visit campus from the other side of the political spectrum between now and November. Many of our fellow ACM schools in Iowa have been hosting campaign events for their communities during the quadrennial caucuses for years. I will be mindful of maintaining consistency, if and when other political candidates request to visit our campus.

When the Vice President’s campaign asked if they could rent space on our campus to give a speech (a requirement for a campaign event), I was faced with a dilemma. I don’t have common ground with the Vice President’s policies and politics. Most recently, until the order was rescinded a couple of days ago, the Trump Administration wanted to expel international students if colleges decided to go online this fall. And I had been very public about my opposition to that policy. 

Almost sixty-three million Americans voted for the Republican ticket in 2016; I was not one of them and I won’t be this fall either. But Ripon is a school that has always prided itself on openness to opposing points of view, even ones that were hard to understand. If I declined to allow Vice President Pence to speak on campus, what were the grounds? And whatever the answer, I would have to apply it to Joe Biden or his soon-to-be-announced running mate. 

Over a twenty-four hour period, and knowing how controversial the decision would be wherever I came down, I consulted widely with different people to better understand the pros and cons. With the College’s administrative team, which includes faculty and staff, we talked about the local and national press exposure, and the counterbalance to my own critical writing about President Trump over the past four years in (among others) The Washington Post, (2016), The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, (2017) and The Chronicle of Higher Education, (2018). We also talked about our commitment to political discourse. One colleague argued passionately against his visit and raised important questions. What happens if Vice President Pence said something that was construed as racist, sexist or homophobic while he was on campus?  Did we want our institution’s name, logo, and reputation to be a part of that story?  From a public health standpoint, should we be hosting this event — even if social distancing and masking were obeyed?

I then turned to a mentor from outside the college who was conflicted, but said that his old-fashioned view was that we should allow him to come but to make sure that a few students were in attendance.  Several RC students did attend the event which was live streamed by a local television station so that people all over Wisconsin could watch it. The media was also on hand to report on the event so that the words the Vice President spoke could be analyzed and critiqued in the coming days and by historians in years to come.  

I also asked a few faculty members whose opinions I greatly respect — and one said, do it because colleges should be places where ideas are heard, the good and the bad. Another argued against it, saying the Vice President would use the college as a campaign prop. A fellow college president advised me to personally greet the Vice President when he arrived on campus, but since it was a campaign event, I ought to stay off the podium and otherwise avoid attending so that it was clear I did not endorse the candidate. After briefly greeting the Vice President this morning, and talking frankly with him about the complexities of reopening our campus in August, I went home for lunch. 

I called a couple of trustees who counseled me to go ahead, because “of course, he ought to be able to speak.” But they left the ultimate call up to me. Finally, I asked my father, a US District Court Judge in Maryland who has ruled against the Trump Administration in several high profile cases related to emoluments and immigration and about whom I wrote in The Baltimore Sun, (2018) after he had to be protected by the US Marshals due to his decisions.

I had to make a choice very quickly, which is often the case in presidential campaigns when dealing with security logistics and secret service, something I learned when I covered the 1996 presidential election as a journalist. We got the request Monday afternoon. I consulted people Monday and all day Tuesday and made the decision that evening. We announced it to the campus community as soon as we could on Wednesday, so that people would hear about it from us first, and so those who wanted to protest might have a couple of days to organize. 

We signed a standard contract (with the regular room charge, nothing different, no special rates or treatment), with the exception that the campaign had to follow the College’s social distancing policies that were put in place in June, and everyone, including the Vice President, was required to wear a mask. On Thursday, I spent more than three hours with concerned students in Zoom meetings, listening to their concerns and worries and doing my best to answer their questions. I respect their views and appreciate that some disagree with the decision to allow the Vice President on campus. 

The response from the college community was swift and unsettling, but also curiously uplifting. Most of the people who disagreed with the decision to allow the Vice President on campus spoke movingly about how much they cared about the institution and what the visit might signal about the College to the wider world. A recently graduated student wrote passionately about how disappointed she was in me personally for turning “a blind eye to protecting students and allowing for oppressive and racist views on campus.” Another student told me that by allowing the Vice President to speak on campus, I was telling LGBT+ students that their safety and well-being does not matter. These messages particularly hurt because over my eight years as President I have tried (and not always successfully) to emphasize our commitment in word and deed to these issues.

Several alumni relayed messages that they were not going to donate to the college because of the decision to allow Vice President Pence to visit. Alumni on the other side of the political spectrum had said exactly the same thing after my public criticisms of the Trump Administration over the past four years. 

But there were also complimentary messages that surprised me. A former trustee who is a proud Democrat, a member of the gay community, and profoundly rejects the views of Vice President Pence told me he was “proud to know me.” A retired faculty member revealed that while he was a long time Republican, but would not be voting for the GOP this time around, he was worried that American colleges and universities had become too politicized. “I am pleased that the college had decided not to take a partisan stand when it might be tempting to do otherwise.” Another faculty colleague added that “while I assume you will come in for considerable criticism for this decision, I really appreciate the stand that you have taken.” Some students and alumni reached out to express their support for allowing the event to go forward. And a college staff member stopped me while I was walking my dog and told me that while he knew our own personal politics were different, he was proud as someone who had lived in Ripon his whole life that the Vice President of the United States would be visiting his hometown and the college he worked for. 

I expect that there will be heated discussions on our campus and within our community for a while, and that’s okay. It is part of what a college is all about, thinking through big political, social, moral and ethical questions. I hope the policies and the politics of the Vice President will be criticized, defended, praised and excoriated by those that have different points of view. And it is important that my decision to permit the person who is a heartbeat away from the presidency to speak on our campus be dissected and challenged over the coming days and weeks. I was glad to see both protesters and supporters of the Vice President on campus today as he arrived.

But you should know that when the weekend is over, my colleagues and I will be focused again on the two most complex and pressing questions of the past few months: how to reopen our campus for in-person, residential life in August, and how to make our schools more equitable and fair for students of color. Long after Mike Pence’s visit to Ripon has faded into American history, Ripon College will still be here, wrestling with big questions and doing our best to do the right thing.


Zach Messitte

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