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This is the forty-third post in an ongoing series as we file Missouri Sunshine Law (RSMo 610) requests and investigate the non-renewal of the contract of University of Central Missouri President Aaron Podolefsky. Links to previous coverage are below the fold. BG and MB

On Thursday I was contacted by the Muleskinner, the student newspaper at the University of Central Missouri and asked if I would sit down for an interview with them to talk about people’s differing perceptions of the tree statement broadcast on KOKO radio by Greg Hassler in October. I told the reporter I would have to think about it. I did and I called him back to set up our meeting. We sat down for a conversation on Friday morning. The transcript:

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner:…It seems like a lot of people, I’m positive you’ve read the comments ’cause I saw your blog, so, a lot of people in our area don’t grasp the anti-Semitic component of what he said.

Michael Bersin: Um, hm.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Why can some people take that in an anti-Semitic way? Um, I guess, depending on your point of view it probably seems, probably like, you know, the giant Christmas tree in the center of the room for, to pull a bad example I guess, given the circumstances, but it’s there. You know, some people might look at it and, oh yeah, you’ve got a big plant and some people will, it’s a Christmas tree. Well, why, why would, I guess, yourself, Mr. Wesly see that in ant-Semitic way where, obviously, Mr. Hassler doesn’t see anything in it.

Michael Bersin: Well, well I don’t know if he doesn’t see anything in it, [cross talk] first.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Okay.

Michael Bersin: Uh, and, and I’ll get to that. One of the, the things, first, that you need to first consider is the Missouri Constitution has the strongest establishment clause of almost any other state constitution. It’s actually in two places, uh, one in the Bill of Rights and one under education. And the language is very explicit. Uh, and it’s been in there for a long time, it’s not something new.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm.

Michael Bersin: The University of Central Missouri is a state institution. So, have you heard the recording of it, the audio? Of what he said?

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: I haven’t heard the audio. I’ve seen transcripts….

Michael Bersin: Right. Uh, so the, I’ve been here for twenty years. And when people have put up seasonal decorations, that’s what they call them. The institution or anybody associated with the institution, when they put up seasonal decorations, didn’t call anything a specific sectarian holiday decoration because they’re not supposed to. Because of the Missouri Constitution and this is a state institution.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Okay.

Michael Bersin: So, people who say, well, there’s always been this thing out here and they interpret it as a sectarian symbol are clearly ignorant of the history of the state, the Constitution, and they way that the, the institution itself dealt with it.

Uh, now this is something that’s striking, getting back to the perception, whether it’s, uh, anti-Semitic or not. In one of the first communications that Richard Phillips, the President of the Board of Governors, in the early exchanges between him and Ben Wesly, which we got through Sunshine, Missouri Sunshine Law request, one of the first, one of the questions that Richard Phillips asked is, “How did you find out about this?” And Ben Wesly, uh, I’d have to go back and look, but it’s sort of, his response was along the lines of, “What does it matter?”

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm.

Michael Bersin: Now, in his recent radio broadcast, uh, most recent radio broadcast that we put a transcript up, Richard, uh, excuse me, um, Greg Hassler, in his radio broadcast raised that point. He said, how did, how did Ben Wesly find out about this? And my question is, if Hassler has no problem with what he said, then what does it matter that anybody else heard it, read about it, or found out about it? That tells me that he knew the meaning of what he said, if he’s complaining that other people are finding out about it. Because if you don’t think that your statement will have that kind of impact then you shouldn’t really care who hears it, or who, who reads it.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Now [crosstalk]…

Michael Bersin: Now, on top of that, what I find fascinating, too, is, there’s a majority owner of the radio station. Has anybody asked the majority owner of the radio station whether this is the view of the radio station? Or how they feel about that comment, on the air, of the station that they own?

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: You know, I have a question for you about that, I mean, there may be, yes there’s controversy, but it is essentially rural Missouri and is a rural Missouri radio station. Um, they’re not getting the negative feedback they’d get in the, in a community that, a larger community that would have more Jewish people, more people that would point out that that, that comment at, if not anti-Semitic, is definitely narrow minded [inaudible] sectarian view.

Michael Bersin: Well, well that, that’s actually insulting to a small rural community to say that. You don’t want to label, uh, you know, an entire community as ignorant. Uh, that’s actually really sad to do that. Uh, that’s really sad to do that.

But, you know, this really isn’t about, um, Hassler. He can spew what he wants.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm.

Michael Bersin: Uh, the real problem is the Board of Governors of the university. Uh, they tell us, you know, they tell us, um, by the way they’ve reacted to this, uh, a lot about themselves. And when this first happened, one of the things I said was, I don’t know which is worse, that he said it, that people make excuses for it, or that the university community, now largely, has remained silent. And whatever anybody says, is, he has very clear strong association with the institution.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Well, obviously he does and I guess you have been involved in the, the battle to get access to a lot of those records that are being.

Michael Bersin: And, and there’s a lot more to this story, you know, on, on all kinds of levels. Um, this is just one part of it, uh.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: This, this story is limited and, and I know that there’s so much more to explore here.

Michael Bersin: Right.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: But this is limited to just why is a comment such as Hassler’s anti-Semitic? You know, we’re, and where is [crosstalk]…

Michael Bersin: We, we can really just dissect it. [crosstalk]

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: And where is that line [crosstalk]…

Michael Bersin: Well.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: …between boorish, a boorish behavior and ill thought out comment [inaudible]?

Michael Bersin: Well, well [crosstalk]…

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: And that’s [crosstalk]…

Michael Bersin: …the whole thing about it is it’s really, uh [crosstalk]…

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: …’cause obviously people don’t understand.

Michael Bersin: The idea that you, you, you start, you’re problem with somebody starts because they didn’t put a sectarian religious symbol up in their res, uh, in front of their residence, which is state property, which the Missouri Constitution says in no way, shape or form should any public money ever be used, period….

….Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: So, the problem starting with…

Michael Bersin: …with the statement is saying that, one, he said his problem with Aaron Podolefsky started when he didn’t put up a sectarian religious symbol on the grounds of his residence which is state property, which on the face of it, that’s what the Constitution of Missouri says you don’t do. Nobody can tell somebody to put up a sectarian symbol on state property, or hold them accountable in some fashion because they didn’t do it. It’s ridiculous on its face.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm.

Michael Bersin: And then to say, well. This is Warrensburg, Missouri, this is America.

I’ve lived here twenty years. Um, I’m American. To somehow say that because I don’t put up a sectarian religious symbol on state property makes me an outsider in my own country, in the community that I live in, and that I’ve lived in for twenty years? How do you think I would take it?

On top of that, Ben Wesly has walked away. Aaron and Ronnie Podolefsky will be leaving here. I have to remain here. But at least I [now] know more about the community I live in and the institution that I’ve been teaching at for the past twenty years.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: So, is this providing a, a more negative view towards the community for yourself, or possibly for other [crosstalk] people, [crosstalk] or?

Michael Bersin: No, what is,  no,  there are, uh lots of great people at this university and in this community. And, oh yeah, they get it.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Does it feel more closed than it did before?

Michael Bersin: No, not at all. What it really is, is, uh, you know, there are people that don’t understand all kinds of things, either through ignorance or whatever, and they’re everywhere. But the real thing here is the university and the Board of Governors should know better.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm. Now, I have to ask, are you tenured?

Michael Bersin: Oh, yes.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Okay. ‘Cause one thing I think I’ve been just hearing, not [inaudible] on this story, is that there are a number of people that haven’t spoken up because they aren’t tenured. [crosstalk] And they…

Michael Bersin: And, and I understand that, uh, there. There’s a practical aspect on, on a personal level you do feel vulnerable, but on a larger level, if somebody retaliated against a faculty member for speaking out on something even if, if they weren’t tenured, on something that really shouldn’t be, you know, uh, which is not relevant to the, the criteria for, for granting of tenure, uh, generally you should feel, you know, pretty good about it. But, the, the other side of the coin is, people who have tenure and the protections. Uh, what tenure allows, uh, tenure only allows you this, tenure only gives you, uh, the ability to speak out. Uh, what that means is that the university can dismiss a tenured faculty member for cause, but they have to show the cause. The faculty member does not have to prove why they should stay, the university has to prove why they should go.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Okay.

Michael Bersin: And so when a faculty member has tenure there’s protection of, of being able to speak out. And, if you have the ability to speak out, you have the obligation to speak out.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Now, what good [will] come out of this comment and this, uh, this whole issue?

Michael Bersin: Well, shining the light of day on anything is always a good thing.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: I mean, obviously there’s, uh, there’s more interest in what the Board of Governors is doing and how they’re doing it. That might be a good thing. But, specifically, this kind of comment, I was speaking with, uh, Karen…with the Anti-Defamation League about, you know, she sees it as an opportunity to, to open dialogue on these kinds of comments and, and the impacts of that. Um.

Michael Bersin: And, and, uh, this is interesting, uh, when people talk about, uh, understanding it’s really, it’s about empathy. It’s about what you do and say and understanding what kind of impact it has on others. And some people will never get, but the Board of Governors, while on some levels if, if you’ve read their communications, understand that there’s a problem, but I don’t think they quite understand how it affects other people.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Now, one of the comments on our web site said that, you know, the entire conflagration could have been handled with the Board of Governors, a simple investigation and a letter to Hassler saying, you know, we don’t approve of that. Um, is that a reasonable point and could that have happened [crosstalk] when Mr. Wesly first…

Michael Bersin: Well, you know, Hassler can say what he wants.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Right. [cross talk] But the board…

Michael Bersin: Uh, and he, you know, and, uh.  Probably. You know, basically it just takes a, the Board of Governors should have just said, this is not what this university is about. Uh, and then that sends a clear signal to the university community. You know, um, and, and institutions of, you know, higher education institutions, uh, are supposed to be, especially the state, you know, a state institution, are supposed to sort of lead the way. I mean, that’s the reason for the, uh, this university’s existence.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, hm. So where do we go from here?

Michael Bersin: I don’t know. Uh, I don’t know. You know, nobody, I don’t think anybody knows.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: [inaudible] I know Mr. Hassler’s a private person, he, well, public figure in the aspect of his radio show, but he’s not an employee of the university. Um, while, yes, he’s a contract in the university, or his radio station does.

Michael Bersin: Have you, have you read the contract? [….] There’s a clause in the contract. The university has approval for on air talent.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Okay. [….] So, then according to that contract the university could say we don’t want you broadcasting our game [crosstalk]. You’re [inaudible] doing the voices for our game.

Michael Bersin: [….]If, if the university so chose.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Right, okay.

Michael Bersin: At least as, as I have read it. I’d have to go review it, again. But I believe that clause is in there. [….]

From the contract [pdf]:

…2. CMSU shall provide the talents and services of the play-by-play and color announcers for all athletic events outlined in No. 1 above…

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Um, so, I understand the, what I, I think, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I understand what you’re saying about the comment. How did it make you personally feel? I read somewhere that you, you posted a, a photocopy on your door. Um, that’s a pretty strong statement.

Michael Bersin: I’ve had to, uh, I’ve had to endure all kinds of things, sometimes really small, you know, and you let it go, uh, and larger things my entire life. And that’s part of the thing about understanding other people’s experience. It’s not one thing. It’s something that history says we can’t get away from, and we know it. And you, you don’t, uh, you know, sometimes you put it behind you and you, you know, in the background. But I’ve had to endure, uh, little things and sometimes bigger things my entire life, uh, and for people to tell me it’s not a big deal or it is a big deal, that’s not their decision. That’s my decision.

It’s not something that I can get away from. So depending on somebody’s life history and what they’ve been through, if you’re, if you understand that then you’re not gonna be so quick to diminish they way somebody feels about something. Ben Wesly’s life experiences are very interesting, but so are mine. And so is my family history.

And Ben Wesly made some comments about that in some of the early responses with the members of the Board of Governors. And if you read some of the comments or, or some of the written communications from one of the members of the Board of Governors you can see that, it’s one of them actually, one of the communications says, oh, I understand a little more now. Uh, or at least they put that in word, those words out, we don’t really know if they understand or not.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Trying to figure out how to phrase this. Um, with just the vast number of people we have in our country and the, the completely different backgrounds that so many people have, um, you know, be they immigrants [….] how can you avoid offending somebody with any comment.

Michael Bersin: That’s really, uh, uh, an interesting point. Uh, you try to understand it. You, you don’t go after people because of their background, or where they came from, or their religious background. You, you engage people based on the power of their ideas, or, or the, uh, usefulness of their ideas, the intelligence of their ideas, or, their, their actions as, as individuals. You can criticize people for what, how they acted in the public sphere based on what it means to be an American. So, uh, if you’re an American citizen and you’re here and you participate in Democracy and you work and you live and you, you’re productive member of, of society and everything else, uh, yeah you can criticize people for what they do, but, you, you don’t criticize them for their background or their religious background. And you don’t try to impose your own religious views on somebody, at least from the perspective of the state. The state doesn’t do that. And nobody has the right or the ability to do that, to impose that.

Can Greg Hassler put up a Christmas tree at his home? You bet. Can Greg Hassles wear a tee shirt that says Merry Christmas any, anywhere he wants, including on this campus? You bet. [….] What he can’t do is, he can’t say that the president of the University of Central Missouri needs to put up a Christmas tree. Well, he can say that, it’s just that it’s not relevant. I mean, he can say that, it’s just not relevant. And anybody who understands what this institution is would look at it, laugh at it on its face, and say, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: What would an ideal resolution to this be for you?

Michael Bersin: I don’t know. [crosstalk]

Pat Nolan, Muleskinner: Or is there?

Michael Bersin: I don’t know. You know, I’m just one person. I don’t call the shots. Uh, and, and that’s actually the, the interesting thing about it. Uh, you know, it’s just individuals. Uh, I can speak out, but I only speak for myself.

Our previous coverage of the issue:

Three steps behind, and to the right (January 25, 2008)

Three steps behind, and to the right, part 2 – a microcosm of our universe (September 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”? (October 15, 2009) (transcript of a portion of the live radio broadcast)

It wasn’t just about a tree (October 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: I heard it on the radio (October 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: let’s not get cut out of the will (October 22, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: $87.75 will get you one sheet of paper (October 23, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: They’re not playing hardball, they’re playing cat and mouse
 (October 23, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: a cola and some scoreboards (October 24, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: a few more pieces of the puzzle? (October 28, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: your silence means consent (October 29, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: let’s not get cut out of the will, part 2 (October 30, 2009)

Old media irony impairment (October 30, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: I heard it on the radio, part 2 (October 31, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: where everybody knows your name (October 31, 2009)

Methinks that someone is paying attention! (November 2, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: Bond, Stadium Bond (November 4, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: where everybody knows your name, part 2 (November 4, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: I heard it on the radio, part 3 (November 5, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: nothing succeeds like success (November 6, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: your Friday news dump (November 6, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: nothing exceeds like excess (November 7, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: a grade for Accounting 101 (November 7, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there ought to be a law (November 8, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there’s gotta be a contract around here somewhere (November 9, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there ought to be a law, part 2 (November 10, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: Garbo speaks! (November 12, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (November 13, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”? Follow the money and it reveals the timeline (November 14, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: the new president search consulting contract (November 18, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: a march on a cold and rainy day (November 18, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: raise their voices (November 19, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: great moments in radio reporting (November 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: Oh, my! (December 3, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: It’s simple, really… (December 5, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: I do truly care about the success of our students (December 6, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: “…a wonderful relationship there we’re really proud of…” (December 7, 2009)

Oh brother, it’s time to convene another panel on blogger ethics… (December 8, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: a lesson on how not to attempt damage control (January 26, 2010)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: a lesson on how not to attempt damage control, part 2 (January 28, 2010)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: welcome to the party… (February 1, 2010)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: welcome to the party, four months late, part 2 (February 2, 2010)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: those people from Denmark, you know, the Dutch (February 3, 2010)