A three-person committee will investigate whether or not the University of Nebraska-Lincoln violated the due process rights of a graduate student lecturer dismissed from her teaching duties in November.
The committee from the American Association of University Professors will interview UNL administrators, faculty and others Thursday and Friday, more than four months after a video showing a confrontation between Courtney Lawton and Kaitlyn Mullen swept across social media.
Lawton, a graduate student lecturer at UNL, could be seen calling Mullen, a second-year student from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a "neo-fascist" on Aug. 25 during a recruiting event for Turning Point USA, a conservative student group that maintains the "Professor Watch List" of faculty members it deems too politically liberal.
Not long after the incident, UNL removed Lawton from her teaching duties — a move both Lawton and university said were for safety reasons and not to discipline her — but after several weeks of pressure from a trio of state lawmakers, Chancellor Ronnie Green and Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman informed Lawton her contract would not be renewed.
That action was considered a summary dismissal that violated Lawton’s right to an administrative hearing, the AAUP said in a December letter to Green.
“Due process is tied to what kind of power someone has over you," said Hans-Juerge Tiede, the associate secretary of the AAUP. “We, as citizens of the United States, are entitled to due process when it comes to government prosecution.
“Faculty are entitled to due process when it comes to disciplinary actions against them,” Tiede added in a phone call earlier this week.
It will be the work of the investigation committee — made up of faculty volunteers from institutions of similar size and mission to UNL — to determine whether or not UNL violated Lawton’s right to an administrative hearing before her contract was ended.
The committee will sit down with Lawton and other faculty involved in the Aug. 25 incident, as well as administrators involved in ending the Department of English lecturer’s employment.
“We want the process to be fair and give an opportunity to the administration to present its side,” Tiede said.
The AAUP also reached out to Mullen, whose event for Turning Point USA drew protest from about a half dozen graduate students and faculty members, to ask if she wanted to take part in the investigation. Mullen did not respond to the AAUP’s request as of Tuesday, Tiede said.
Once its investigation is compiled, the AAUP will offer the UNL administration a chance to review the document and correct any factual errors. The AAUP will then revise the report and present it to the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure for its review at its annual meeting in June.
The process is expected to take six to eight weeks.
While the AAUP has no power to strip the accreditation of UNL or impose any other discipline on the university, the Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure could vote to censure the university, which could harm faculty recruitment efforts and put a stain on UNL’s administration.
“That’s an indication to the public and the members of the academic profession there are concerns about the state of academic freedom and due process at this institution,” Tiede said. “That’s a very serious issue. In order to function, universities require a good climate of academic freedom.
“If there are concerns that legislators and the outside public can interfere with the university’s academic freedom and due process, it doesn’t speak well for the university,” he added.
A total of 16 universities have been censured by the AAUP since 2010, including the University of Missouri in 2016, which dismissed assistant professor of communications Melissa Click the previous year after Click was filmed calling for “muscle” to remove two student journalists from a public area of campus.
The AAUP found the University of Missouri did not provide adequate grounds for Click’s dismissal because it denied her a hearing and other procedural rights outlined in AAUP and university regulations, the 2016 report states.
It concludes saying the board’s action against Click, threats made toward the university from lawmakers "and unresolved administrative turmoil," demonstrated academic freedom and shared governance were endangered at the University of Missouri.
The University of Nebraska follows similar policies of shared governance, and bylaws and policies enacted by the Board of Regents outline the process for due process afforded to members of the faculty.
Green said UNL administrators believe they acted properly and with the best interests of the university in mind.
“We are open to their questions, but we firmly believe academic freedom and freedom of expression are alive and well at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” Green said.
Tiede said the AAUP’s findings are not an endorsement of or a defense of a faculty member’s conduct. The AAUP is interested in determining if the university followed the policies and bylaws used as a foundation for shared governance.
“If an administration believes what a faculty member did was objectionable, there should be adequate processes for handling that,” he said. “The committee will look into what those processes are at the university and to what extent they were adequately pursued.”