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Emails overwhelmingly call on Nebraska regents to reject Pillen's critical race theory resolution
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Emails overwhelmingly call on Nebraska regents to reject Pillen's critical race theory resolution

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts recently decried critical race theory on a call-in radio show, encouraging parents to engage locally.

Early response to a proposed resolution curbing the teaching of critical race theory at the University of Nebraska has largely been against the idea put forward by Regent Jim Pillen.

For weeks, members of the NU community, including students, faculty, alumni and others, had been penning emails blasting Pillen's resolution opposing "any imposition of critical race theory in curriculum" at NU, which will likely be considered by regents on Aug. 13.

The messages, provided to the Journal Star through a public records request, started landing in university inboxes just days after Pillen said he opposed critical race theory being taught at NU.

Calling the framework for examining systemic inequities stemming from race and racism "un-American" and "divisive," the Columbus agribusiness owner and former Husker defensive back clarified at the time he was speaking as a candidate for governor and not as a member of NU's governing body.

That didn't assuage some, who emailed Pillen after his comments were printed in news outlets.

Nebraska teachers union defends critical race theory, accuses critics of censorship

"Unfortunately, you are following our current governor's and former president's playbook by stroking racial prejudices for political gain," Tim Gross wrote to Pillen on June 27. "This might very well get you elected in this very racist state, but in the process you will lose the respect of folks like me who believe integrity, character, dignity and truth matter."

A deluge of disapproving emails followed Pillen's announcement he would, in fact, ask regents to sign onto a resolution opposing critical race theory in early July -- a move endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts but criticized by NU's administrators, faculty and student athletes.

"I cannot believe an ‘institution of higher learning’ is even considering introducing such a ridiculous resolution as the one you are proposing banning critical race theory," wrote Michael Stoos.

NU leaders say they have 'significant concerns' about resolution opposing critical race theory

"It appears to me that your resolution is a very blatant political statement rather than an educational concern," another wrote. "I would suggest that you resign from the Board of Regents if you plan to use this platform to campaign for governor."

Others like Andy Wit of Papillion slammed the language of the resolution as having "no business being in any official policy of an educational institution that wants to be taken seriously."

And Matt Heller, who identified himself as a 2003 UNL alum, suggested his own version of the resolution for regents to consider:

"Be it resolved that this UNL alumnus and former Regents Scholar expects that the Regents will properly and decisively oppose the CRT resolution, continue to abstain from doing insane things like banning material or burning books, and generally carry on with the intellectually honest promotion of higher education in the State of Nebraska."

NU athletes oppose proposed resolution condemning critical race theory

Not all of the responses were critical, however.

Tom Henning, a UNL alum and former member of the NU Foundation's Board of Directors, voiced his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in an email to Heath Mello, the university's vice president for external relations.

"I believe that Nebraskans aggregately oppose the critical race theory being taught or supported in Nebraska's school systems, including the university," wrote Henning, a 2019 recipient the university's President's Medal of Service.

The chairman and CEO of Cash-Wa Distributing Co. in Kearney, Henning said he believes allowing critical race theory to be taught "absolutely and positively, would not be in the best interest of the university."

Resolution opposing critical race theory would violate NU policy, faculty say

"It could be the 'genesis' of a 'real backlash' to the institution which we don't need in Nebraska!!!!" he wrote.

Eric Rodene, a former president of UNL's Graduate Student Assembly who said he was emailing in an individual capacity, told Pillen while he supports the sentiment of the resolution, he understands concerns it would infringe upon academic freedom.

"I think if clear definitions can be made as to what type of content or educational methods the resolution opposes, this may help to allay some individuals' concerns," Rodene wrote.

Pillen asks fellow NU regents to formally oppose critical race theory

Or, Rodene suggested, the resolution could be written to oppose "the stifling of opposing ideas and their free discussion, without actually naming critical race theory itself."

A professor emeritus in UNL's Department of Mechanical Engineering wrote to Pillen he was "in full agreement" with the resolution.

"Academic freedom has nothing to do with this resolution," Donald L. Johnson wrote. "Long-term implications regarding academic freedom is a concern if this resolution is not adopted."

The emails include explicit opposition to the resolution from a pair of Omaha regents.

Regent Elizabeth O'Connor said the legal theory was part of her classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2012 and is still taught on the metropolitan campus.

Pillen opposes critical race theory as gubernatorial candidate after groups call on him to denounce it as NU regent

Responding to an email asking the board to oppose the resolution, O'Connor recalled an analogy made by the Rev. John Jenkins at the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated with a law degree.

"He compared a university to a crossroads at a lighthouse," O'Connor wrote. "As a lighthouse, the university strives to stand apart and to examine different, illuminating issues with wisdom and deliberate thought.

"But a university is also a crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures," she continued. "At this crossroads, we must be a place where people of good will are received with charity, able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.

"For these reasons, I will vote no on this resolution," O'Connor concluded.

Fellow Omaha Regent Barb Weitz responded to several emails indicating she and others would be addressing the matter when regents met for committee meetings.

"It has been painful watching the efforts to politicize issues like this," Weitz responded to one email.

Other regents, including Jack Stark of Omaha and Bob Phares of North Platte, thanked those who submitted emails and responded they would bring the concerns to the attention of the whole board.

The agenda for the board's Aug. 13 meeting, which is expected to include Pillen's resolution, will be published on Friday.

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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