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Adam Smeltz: Blasting Penn State, Santorum Brings an Early Spotlight to Primary Season

on March 12, 2012 7:41 AM

Presidential primary season came home to Penn State earlier than usual this year.

In a Michigan radio interview last month, as you may know by now, Republican candidate Rick Santorum launched a direct attack on the university.

"There are schools; I went to one -- Penn State -- that's one of the liberal icons. Unfortunately, it's gotten a lot worse," Santorum said, according to a CBS report from Detroit. "I can tell you professor after professor who docked my grades because of the viewpoints I expressed and the papers I wrote; there's no question that happened."

A 1980 Penn State graduate, Santorum went on to say his grades "absolutely, absolutely" took a hit because of his political beliefs. And "I used to go to war with some of my professors who thought I was out of the pale; these are just not proper ideas. This is not something that's unusual, folks. I know this may be a surprise to some people. ... There is clearly a bias at the university."

Given all that as background, I reached out last week to Santorum's campaign staff, hoping for more specifics. I wanted to know under which professors, in which classes he suffered at Penn State.

As of early Monday morning, the campaign had not responded.

Penn State's Department of Public Information, too, has declined to respond publicly to Santorum's remarks.

But Kim C. Steiner, a longtime Faculty Senate member and a former Faculty Senate chairman at Penn State, noted a key point:

Using a classroom as platform for political indoctrination is a violation of university policy, he wrote via e-mail. And "I think the vast majority of faculty members understand that using the classroom as a platform for political indoctrination is wrong."

Over at The Philadelphia Inquirer, columnist Karen Heller tracked down several Penn State academics who were familiar with Santorum in the 1970s.

One, former political-science-department chairman Robert Friedman, told her any grade issues Santorum faced had nothing to do with his politics.

"I never received a complaint from any students that a professor had downgraded them because they were conservative and the professor was too liberal, or a student was too liberal with a conservative professor," Friedman told Heller.

As to the charge that Penn State "gotten a lot worse" since Santorum's time in school, I sought out Josh Crawford. He's the sitting chairman of the Penn State College Republicans -- a group that Santorum once led.

"I have had some very outwardly liberal professors," Crawford said last week. "And in all reality, they have been some of my favorite professors."

He doesn't know that his grades have ever suffered because of his politics, he said. But if that has happened, Crawford went on, the impact has been minute -- not perceptible.

That said, he knows some College Republicans members who think their politics have affected their grades, Crawford said. But he said those fears have all been centered in one class.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that there's a systemic problem at Penn State," Crawford said. He said he has had liberal, moderate, conservative and libertarian professors -- "and some who are more conservative than they want to admit they are."

Crawford imagines Santorum's remarks on Penn State last month may have been a rallying cry for the former U.S. senator's base. That base "loves it" when candidates attack targets like the liberal news media and liberal higher education, he said.

With the Pennsylvania Republican primary slated for April 24, Penn State may find itself in the political spotlight again before long. The College Republicans are in touch with the Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigns about possible campaign stops locally, Crawford said.

Santorum already visited Penn State -- back in late August -- but the College Republicans here are "more than willing" to host him again, Crawford said.

If he does return, here's hoping he will explain his earlier remarks about the university.

The blue-and-white masses might appreciate some clarity.

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