In an open letter Monday, nearly 70 faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln accused Gov. Pete Ricketts and several state senators of using an Aug. 25 political incident in a sustained attack to damage the university.
Posted to the Nebraska chapter of the American Association of University Professors' website, the letter raised concerns that decisions involving the university “are being made without transparency or proper governance and under improper exertions of influence by the legislative and executive branches of the state government.”
"We believe it is imperative to express our alarm now, before irrevocable damage is done to the mission of the university and the value it contributes to the state of Nebraska," the letter states.
In an earlier statement Ricketts had said "the August incident has highlighted concerns about the liberal bent of academia."
"The University of Nebraska has an opportunity to set itself apart as a public university that fosters spirited debate and a supportive learning environment for students across the political spectrum," he said.
Following an Aug. 25 confrontation between graduate student and lecturer Courtney Lawton and Kaitlyn Mullen, a second-year student recruiting for a conservative group, state Sens. Steve Erdman, Tom Brewer and Steve Halloran said UNL is hostile to students with conservative viewpoints.
UNL removed Lawton from the classroom in September after a video surfaced of her calling the student a “neo-fascist” and making an inappropriate gesture toward her. Lawton said she was told she was removed for safety reasons and not for disciplinary reasons.
In October the three senators penned an editorial criticizing UNL for being unfriendly to conservatives and they took aim at a list of “core beliefs” posted on the English department’s website, saying it did not reflect what they said should be taught in English courses.
Top university administrators responded on Oct. 31, saying the senators’ criticism included "falsehoods and distortions," adding UNL was taking steps to make all students feel welcome on campus.
Their responses drew further rebuke from the state senators, who demanded to meet with administrators to communicate their expectations to the university.
On Nov. 16, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Hank Bounds met with the senators at the Capitol. Brewer, of Gordon, said in an interview last week the senators told the administrators during the meeting they thought the graduate student should be fired.
A day after the meeting, UNL ended the graduate student’s employment at the university.
Two communications staff also resigned after emails were made public showing a communications strategy discussion to counter what they called a “right wing narrative” continuing to focus on the Aug. 25 incident.
The Nov. 17 firing and resignations drew alarm from the faculty, which they said was evidence of a “sustained attack on the university that has greatly surpassed the scope and import of the initial incident,” and led the lawmakers to call for an end to tenure, further budget cuts and censorship of members of the English department.
“Under the pretense that the university is unsafe for conservative students, the governor and his surrogates are opening the door to ideological intervention at the university from outside entities,” the letter states. “Their lack of consistency in protecting and respecting students’ political views, particularly those that diverge from their own, reveals the political nature of this manufactured crisis.”
The faculty also said they have been “aggressively targeted by sweeping open records requests made by the governor’s allies,” including a request to faculty critical of the state government to turn over private email addresses and emails.
The faculty asked "no radical changes" be made to UNL's administration, academic programs, allocation of funds, or support for campus initiatives without "appropriate faculty governance, transparency and respect for academic freedom, which are core values of a healthy university."
Both Erdman and Halloran said in phone interviews last week they intend to sponsor “free speech legislation” in January requiring the university to create new rules protecting speech and expression in public areas on campus and adopting disciplinary sanctions for anyone who interferes with that free speech and expression.
Erdman said the senators plan to blend two models being considered in other states, including one put forward by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative and libertarian think-tank based in Arizona, and another recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
He said the bill is not “a conservative protection thing,” but rather protection for free speech and free expression on campus. “All students need to feel protected and be welcomed to share their concerns and ideas without any repercussions, it’s not just one certain group.”
Faculty in other states -- seven have adopted some form of the bill, 10 others are considering it -- where free speech legislation has been signed into law have opposed those measures, saying the bills diminish the ability of a university community to govern itself.
“If the Nebraska Legislature proposes legislation that would affect academic freedom and freedom of speech I am assured the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Faculty Senate would discuss the matter thoroughly and take action if necessary,” said Sarah Purcell, the faculty senate president.
UNL's graduate students have also expressed concerns over external pressures on the university system following the Aug. 25 incident.
"Many graduate students have approached us about this issue because they feel that the August 25 incident has egregiously distorted perceptions about their work, and because they fear that decision regarding Ms. Lawton set a precedent that compromises their security in this community," the Graduate Student Assembly wrote in an email.
The assembly said they will work "to create a climate on campus in which all students -- graduate and undergraduate -- are safe and valued, no matter their political viewpoints."
In their letter, the faculty asked the administration to “stand for the values of the University of Nebraska, a large community of diverse people with diverse viewpoints,” that constitutes the “most significant institutional asset” in the state.
“We insist that all levels of the administration respect the governance structures currently in place, and categorically reject political interference in the good work being done at our state’s flagship institution,” the letter concludes.