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Nick Coleman was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his three boys when the mail arrived. He was distracted, fussing in his mind about a looming deadline on his Star Tribune column, when he opened the letter from St. John's University.
It was the school's version of a pink slip.
The message was eloquently written, but crystal clear. For one year now, Coleman had been a senior fellow at the school's Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement. He'd tacked his title onto his opinion columns in the Star Tribune each Sunday. Now the school wanted him gone.
Budget challenges had caused the school to reconsider the fellows program, wrote Joe DesJardins, the school's vice provost. But the real reason for Coleman's ouster was spelled out in DesJardins's carefully chosen next words.
"Unfortunately, many of our alumni and friends interpreted your by-line as a Senior Fellow of the McCarthy Center as an implicit SJU endorsement of the opinions you express," DesJardins wrote. "This has brought St. John's into the political sphere in ways that we had not anticipated and think is not in St. John's best long-term interest."
Coleman had been delighted when the university asked him to be the center's first fellow. He was proud to be associated with McCarthy, the former congressman and presidential candidate known for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War.
To Coleman, DesJardins's letter was a cop-out. "It's not like I just fell off the turnip truck," he says. "I've been writing opinion columns for years."
Coleman quickly scanned the center's website. The lecture series named after Mark Kennedy, the former Republican state senator and staunch pro-lifer, was still prominently associated with the school.
"I do think something is out of whack when he's a part of it and a liberal columnist can't be," Coleman says of Kennedy.
What Coleman didn't know was that efforts to unseat him from St. John's had been brewing for months.
Bob Labat, a 1959 St. John's grad who has donated to the school every year since, noticed Coleman's columns right away. Labat found Coleman grating—a quality he considered inappropriate for someone associated with the Catholic school.
"He has every right to be as caustic and as strong in his opinion as he wants to be, but when you're also writing on the masthead of an academic institution, that's a problem," Labat says.
He wasn't alone. In September, Len Busch, who has given $20,000 to the St. John's theology department each of the last three years, authored a handwritten message about Coleman.
"As long as St. John's has this man on the payroll, I will no longer give my money to St. John's," Busch wrote. "I will not support lies and false statements and half truths about anyone."
Busch called the dean of the theology school, Bill Cahoy, and asked him to set up a lunch with Coleman. In the meantime, Busch compiled a stack of Coleman's columns he found objectionable.
He hated the December 5 column, which criticized 3M after company execs asked employees to send letters to Congress about health care reform.
"You've got a company, if the company doesn't exist, the workers don't get a damn thing," Busch says. "They don't have a job, they don't have anything. This anti-corporation is terrible. They provide jobs. They provide everything. And someone takes their money and invests in them—but let's badmouth the hell out of any corporation. Well, that's stupid."
Busch was similarly offended by Coleman's February columns, which criticized Gov. Tim Pawlenty for abandoning Minnesota to travel the country to further his presidential ambitions.
"His tone is negative, negative, negative, negative," Busch says of Coleman.
On May 4, Busch got his showdown with his adversary. He was in his backyard when his wife came out and told him someone from St. John's was on the line: Coleman would meet him for lunch in Maple Grove—in 20 minutes.
Busch was in such a rush that he had no time to call and invite Labat, who had wanted to come along. "I thought that was very, very rude," Busch says. "I had all these articles laying here, and I couldn't even bring anything along."
Cahoy, the theology dean, joined Coleman and Busch for lunch. On the way into the restaurant, Cahoy told Busch what was in store for Coleman: "I believe he's on the way out," Cahoy said.
Coleman and Busch ordered salads and Busch started in with his criticism. Busch told Coleman that the information in his columns was slanted and false. He was particularly focused on a column in which Coleman said the rich should pay more taxes.
"What else are you but a damn liar?" Busch asked Coleman.
"You can't just say I'm a liar," Coleman replied.
The lunch only went downhill after that.
"He was very livid—very, very livid," Coleman recalls.
"I thought he was damn rude," Busch says.
On July 19, Coleman got the letter from DesJardins dismissing him as a fellow. No one from St. John's had bothered to talk to him about it. St. John's also declined to talk to City Pages. Instead, the university issued this brief statement:
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