UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green accused a trio of state senators of using "falsehoods and distortions" in their ongoing dispute with university leaders over an August confrontation between a student and several faculty and graduate students.

Green sent a letter Tuesday to all 49 members of the Nebraska Legislature saying the University of Nebraska-Lincoln “will not be politicized and will not be used as a pawn.”

The message came in response to an opinion piece by first-year Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard, Tom Brewer of Gordon and Steve Halloran of Hastings, which appeared in the Hastings Tribune over the weekend and has since been published by the Journal Star.

The piece posed questions about this summer's on-campus incident involving members of UNL's English Department faculty and second-year student Kaitlyn Mullen, who was recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA.

Among other things, the senators asked whether the university is "hostile" toward conservative students, and if its administration can "conduct an honest investigation when a conservative student is involved." 

They also asked, "Does anyone teach English anymore at UNL?"

NU President Hank Bounds also responded to the piece, telling Erdman, Brewer and Halloran in an email that he was disappointed they hadn't called him to discuss their concerns before it published.

“I don’t relish the prospect of a public dispute with members of the Legislature,” Bounds wrote. “Unfortunately, no one contacted me to discuss your questions before the piece was sent to the media, even though senators have my cell phone number and email address.

“And when factors are misrepresented to the degree that they have been in this case, I’m going to speak up,” he added.

Some conservatives, including the three senators, have criticized the university's handling of the August incident since soon after it happened.

Video of Courtney Lawton, a graduate teaching assistant in UNL’s English Department, referring to Mullen as a “neo-fascist” circulated quickly on conservative social media circles, as did a photo of associate professor Amanda Gailey holding a sign that read “Turning Point: Please put me on your watchlist.”

Gailey, who approached Mullen after the student became visibly upset, said her sign was a show of solidarity for other faculty listed on the “Professor Watchlist,” a website that lists faculty its moderators claim discriminate against conservative students.

UNL interviewed everyone involved in the incident, which lasted about 20 minutes, and reviewed security footage from a camera mounted outside the Nebraska Union.

Following the review, and in the midst of a wave of angry phone calls and emails to the university, UNL removed Lawton from teaching duties, citing safety reasons.

No action against other employees was taken in early September.

Although they don’t list the sources of their information in the opinion piece, Erdman, Brewer and Halloran said recent developments related to the incident raised questions about UNL’s treatment of conservative students on its campus, namely:

* "Are professors at UNL hostile toward conservative students?"

* "Are university administrators warm, welcoming, inviting and transparent toward conservative students?"

* "Can the university’s administration conduct an honest investigation when a conservative student is involved?"

* "Can anyone at the University tell the truth about free speech zones on campus?"

* "Does anyone teach English anymore at UNL?"

The opinion piece says Green and three other administrators met with Mullen on Oct. 23 to review the findings of UNL’s investigation. “Feeling outnumbered and intimidated, Ms. Mullen insisted on bringing her own attorney to the meeting,” the senators wrote.

The senators also accused the university of removing 10 minutes of footage from the Nebraska Union video, attributing an explanation to Green that “the camera suddenly stopped filming in that particular location and jumped to another area of the campus.”

“I find your falsehoods and distortions defamatory and an egregious breach of the trust that Nebraskans put in each of us,” Green wrote in his response.

In recapping the incident, Green said an employee who directed Mullen to move to an area away from the union, under a policy governing where groups not affiliated with the university can put up table displays, “erroneously used the phrase ‘free speech zones.’”

“Because Turning Point USA was not affiliated with the university in any way, the employee was simply trying to enforce a policy, and in that, he used an inaccurate phrase,” Green said. “We have repeatedly made clear since August 25 that we welcome free speech across our campuses. There were no statements retracted or changed.”

The chancellor also said assertions made by the state senators regarding the Oct. 23 meeting between several administrators and Mullen “are untrue.”

Green said he invited Mullen to review findings of the university’s investigation in a transparent and comfortable setting, for informational purposes only.

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Administrators asked that the meeting not be recorded, Green said, so the meeting would not “provide content for national organizations to mischaracterize and use to promote their agendas."

UNL also would not communicate disciplinary action against any employees, Green said, although it did “make expressly clear” to Mullen and the public that the behavior of one employee during the Aug. 25 incident was inappropriate.

He also rebuked the senators’ charge about the “mysteriously missing” 10 minutes of tape, saying the camera automatically adjusts where it is pointing on a regular basis “to provide a comprehensive view of the area.”

The senators also complained about several politically charged signs that were photographed in the English Department's graduate student offices. Green said those signs have been removed.

“To put all of this in perspective, the genesis of your letter appears to be one 20-minute interaction at the university that we appropriately addressed,” Green wrote. “Portrayals that the August 25 interaction is the norm are simply not true, and such falsehoods and baseless accusations are clearly not in the best interest of Nebraskans or of their University.”

Green, Bounds and the Board of Regents have all said they were upset with Lawton's behavior. 

“This won’t be the only time we fall short," Bounds wrote this week. “We have work to do in becoming a more welcoming place for all of our 53,000 students and 16,000 employees."

He challenged the senators’ stated reasons for publishing the piece, asking if it was “a sincere effort” to move the university and state forward, or to serve a personal political agenda.

The university has faced financial pressure from lawmakers as state government deals with an ongoing budget crunch. Campus leaders are working to close a $49 million budget gap as a result.

And Erdman, who was among the university's most persistent critics during the budget debate, plans to pursue $1.1 billion in property tax cuts during next year's legislative session. 

Meanwhile, NU is convening a task force to examine the system’s policies governing free expression and facilities use “to ensure they are clear and consistent,” and Bounds will sponsor a speaker series this year centered on unconscious bias.

Bounds also defended the teaching and research faculty for its work across all areas — the “thousands of stories of teaching, research and services to the people of Nebraska that aren’t being told because we’re still talking about an isolated incident that is being used to advance a political agenda.”

“I’m asking you to join my colleagues and I at the University of Nebraska in advancing the Governor’s goal to grow our state for the future,” Bounds wrote. “The next generation is watching.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Chris Dunker covers higher education.

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