A state senator representing a rural southeastern Iowa district found himself in the national news this week. It turns out the business degree he claimed on his official biography was actually a training course at the chain restaurant Sizzler. The predictable puns soon followed.
The offender, Mark Chelgren, made headlines in news outlets including the Associated Press and NBC News after he insisted that he did not mean to mislead anyone. He has since changed his biography on the Iowa State Senate website, which mentioned the business training.
So, is this academic snobbery? After all, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean earned little more than scorn when he needled former Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for not having finished a university degree. Whatever one may think of Walker, he was hardly a slacker: He took a job at a local American Red Cross chapter during his early 20s, decided not to finish his senior year, got connected to the right people such as the Koch brothers, and worked his way up to winning his first statewide election in 2010. Education is hardly the same thing as intelligence.
On that point (ahem) some detractors of the current president will remind us that exit polls suggested he won a narrow, but decisive, victory in November’s election; assumptions that the white working class or “whitelash” paved the way to Donald Trump’s shocking victory are not the whole story.
And while Chelgren claimed to have an associate’s degree from an Inland Empire community college, he also noted that he took courses in some pretty complicated science courses at the University of California, Riverside. Even if he did not pass them or dropped out, he at least had the ambition to enroll – and again, ambition and intelligence are great qualities that do not have to go hand-in-hand with being “educated,” whatever that oft-overused word means.
So what’s the big deal? After all, I worked for a company where my replacement said she attended Harvard. Oh, she attended Harvard, all right – for a week-long seminar. Chelgren’s claim had more or less chutzpah, depending on your point of view, as his business degree or certificate was from Forbco Management School, which apparently was affiliated with a Sizzler’s franchise in Torrance, California. He was a college student at the time and, according to interviews, he did what many of us forgot to do: Update his resume. If he was proud of that degree, so be it.
But part of what landed Chelgren in this mess is that he recently submitted legislation to require Iowa’s universities to ask prospective faculty candidates about their political affiliation. The goal, Chelgren said last month, would be to ensure partisan balance so the divide between Republican- and Democrat-leaning faculty would be no more than a 10-point percentage gap on either side of the political divide.
Senate File 288 went over like a lead balloon. First of all, while no federal laws exist that prohibit privately-run companies, academic institutions or NGOs from asking questions about political leanings, most human resources experts agree that posing such a question risks sparking eventual claims of discrimination or workplace retaliation. Furthermore, Chelgren’s legislation would not apply to anyone who declares that he or she is an independent voter, so prospective academics could simply check the “no party” box – a loophole Chelgren admitted could be done easily, which makes the legislation all but pointless.
Many feel Chelgren’s legislation is insulting because it assumes that young minds are impressionable and can be easily swayed by someone spouting off ideology from behind the lectern. If that were true, the 40 percent of Americans with a college degree would vote in such overwhelming numbers that Donald Trump and George W. Bush would have been historical footnotes, not No. 43 and No. 45. Conservative firebrand Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton both completed degrees from that cauldron of northeastern U.S. liberalism, Harvard. The stubborn truth is that the vast majority of us develop our political ideology based on countless factors, including upbringing, biases, background and spirituality.
Nevertheless, legislators like Chelgren have an affinity for drafting such ridiculous legislation because it scores them press. Sadly for Chelgren, he won plenty of press – just not the kind that is great for building a career.
Image credit: Sizzler/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.