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Free speech

Timon Prax, Turning Point USA's regional manager (left), and UNL sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen set up a table outside the Nebraska Union on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. 

A committee of the American Association of University Professors will recommend placing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on its list of censured administrations.

Over the university's objections, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure found credible the conclusions of a report indicating UNL had violated the academic freedom and due process of a graduate student and lecturer at the center of a political firestorm on campus.

"The AAUP will not revise the Report or its conclusions in the Report and intends to continue with its censure process with respect to actions taken by the UNL administration," wrote Aaron Nisenson, AAUP's senior counsel, in a letter to UNL obtained Thursday by the Journal Star.

UNL administrators drew the attention of the AAUP after they removed Courtney Lawton from teaching duties in the English department following Lawton's protest of the conservative student group Turning Point USA in August.

Lawton was told by administrators in September she was being temporarily reassigned as a safety precaution, but following a prolonged reaction from conservative politicians and others, was informed she would no longer teach at UNL last November.

The AAUP said removing Lawton as a way to end backlash against the university from elected leaders and others violated her academic freedom. And, because the university did not give Lawton a hearing before ending her teaching duties, administrators also violated her right to due process.

NU criticized the initial AAUP report in a May 25 letter from Stacia Palser, NU's interim vice president and general counsel, saying its findings were based on "misleading and inaccurate information" that had "unnecessarily subjected UNL to reputational damage."

In April, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green hand-delivered a letter to AAUP that offered corrections from UNL's administration. Green's letter was re-sent to the AAUP along with Palser's May 25 letter.

Responding to Palser's letter on Thursday, Nisenson said the American Association of University Professors "vehemently" disagreed with UNL's characterization of the investigative committee's report.

Nisenson said the AAUP had communicated its concerns to UNL administrators as early as September 2017, saying it viewed Lawton's reassignment without "demonstration of stated cause in an appropriate hearing" as a suspension.

He added that not reinstating Lawton or providing her a hearing in an appropriate setting under university policy was a violation of the graduate student lecturer's academic due process — issues the AAUP says it is responsible for promulgating.

"Although UNL took the position that the action taken against Ms. Lawton was neither a suspension nor a dismissal, the UNL chancellor's announcement that 'she will not teach at our university going forward because of (her) inappropriate behavior' left little doubt as to its disciplinary nature," Nisenson said.

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The AAUP also acknowledged that while UNL invited Lawton to take part in a grievance procedure, "it refused to afford her a hearing on the substantive grounds for her dismissal."

"While you may dislike the AAUP's use of the terms 'suspension' and 'summary dismissal' in the Report, the AAUP explained its use of terms and even included UNL's objections," Nisenson said.

The recommendation to censure UNL will be considered by the AAUP's general council as well as the delegate assembly scheduled to meet in Arlington, Virginia, on June 16.

Being censured does not carry any sanctions, but could potentially harm UNL's ability to recruit top administrators, faculty, and in some cases, students.

After receiving notice the AAUP recommended censure on Thursday, UNL maintained its position on the report's findings:

"We continue to hold that the conclusions of the report are based on mischaracterizations and factual omissions," said Deb Fiddelke, UNL's chief communication officer. "While we respect that the AAUP disagrees, we had hoped to have a constructive dialogue with them regarding the specifics of these inaccuracies.

"It's disappointing that we're instead at this point of disagreeing over technicalities and definitions," Fiddelke added.

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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