Susan Dench, head of the conservative Informed Women’s Network and former columnist for the Bangor Daily News, saw her nomination to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted down by the Education Committee today after blistering testimony from members of the UMS community and others alleging that Dench holds extreme views about education, diversity and the role of women and that she is unqualified to help oversee the state’s public universities.
While Dench’s controversial opinions were mostly public knowledge, as they were primarily expressed in a series of columns she wrote for this newspaper, (Dench’s employment as a columnist ended in July of this year) the committee also heard a new allegation that Dench had plagiarized some of her published work.
Professor Jane Kuenz, chair of the Department of English at the University of Southern Maine, testified that she had reviewed one of Dench’s columns, titled The Pilgrims Were Communists – Happy Thanksgiving, and found that is was substantially plagiarized from a post on FreeRepublic.com by a user with the pseudonym bobjam.
“Ms. Dench has rewritten Bobjam’s original article, often in her own words, but also sometimes not,” said Kuenz. “All of the quotations from Bradford are the same. All of the points made about the quotations from Bradford are the same. She even interjects the same sarcastic parenthetical remark at the same point in the article.”
“Someone who doesn’t understand the core values of the university shouldn’t serve on the board of trustees,” concluded Kuenz.
Concerns about Dench’s controversial views were expressed by a number of those who testified, including Danna Hayes, director of public policy for the Maine Women’s Lobby, who spoke against Dench’s nomination on behalf of her organization as well as the Maine chapter of the American Association of University Women, Equality Maine, and Family Crisis Services.
Hayes noted columns where Dench had decried schools’ role in the “feminization of boys,” deemed women “the weaker sex,” and blamed feminism and women’s sexual empowerment for creating a “hook up culture” and “inflict[ing] social damage.”
“While these view may be dismissed as simply old-fashioned, the sexual violence prevention community has resoundingly agreed that these types of beliefs perpetuate the power dynamics that result in violence,” said Hayes. “We believe Ms. Dench’s confirmation would also send a message to the women of Maine, both alumnae and future students of the UMaine system, that our state does not take the psychology behind violence against women seriously.”
Dench defended these views to the committee as bringing a “diversity of opinion” to the Board and said that her background in advertising would be beneficial for marketing the University System.
The committee vote was eight to five against Dench, along party lines. Her nomination will now go before the entire Senate. LePage’s two other nominations to the Board were approved unanimously.
“As a retired teacher, I can tell you plagiarism wouldn’t be okay for my students and shouldn’t be okay for a member of a University board,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, House chair of the committee, in a written statement after the vote. “It automatically disqualified Mrs. Dench for the nomination, along with her fringe viewpoints that undermine public education.”
Dench has said she first decided to get involved in politics after hearing an interview with Gov. LePage on talk radio and has since organized several rallies to support his policies at the statehouse. Her husband, Bryan Dench, serves as treasurer for LePage’s campaign and the two have given a combined $2,600 to his re-election. LePage made a number of controversial statements at an event hosted by Dench in October of last year, including his false claim that 47% of Mainers choose not to work.