Mounting political pressure led to the dismissal of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer who protested a recruiting event for Turning Point USA last fall, the American Association of University Professors said Thursday.
The national faculty organization said UNL administrators violated university policies and broke widely observed norms in higher education to end the prolonged and intense reaction to Courtney Lawton’s protest of the conservative student group last August.
But in ending Lawton’s part-time teaching appointment within UNL’s English Department, administrators violated her right to a hearing and may have violated her academic freedom, the AAUP said, which could result in a censure of the university’s administration.
“The conclusion seems inescapable that the basis for Ms. Lawton’s dismissal was related to the political content of her speech and thus may have violated her academic freedom, a conclusion that stands unrebutted absent the affordance of a dismissal hearing,” the report states.
The Journal Star obtained a copy of the report Wednesday and spoke to several individuals about its findings.
Video of Lawton's protest of the Turning Point USA event led by UNL undergraduate student Kaitlyn Mullen sped across social media and conservative outlets, drawing outrage from Nebraskans, lawmakers, and others, and pushing UNL to reassign Lawton from her teaching duties in early September.
While UNL said Lawton was removed from the classroom for safety purposes in early September, the AAUP noted she later received a written reprimand from Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman: “We believe the way you chose to express your views was disrespectful, and it was in fact experienced by the student as ‘silencing.’”
Furthermore, the AAUP said UNL Police told Lawton the threats against her were in "a continued and steady decline" the very day she was removed from her teaching duties, while Plowman said she considered the intensity of the threats made against Lawton, rather than the number in making her decision.
The controversy briefly lost steam until UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green met with Mullen, Lawton and others involved in the protest in a series of follow-up meetings in late October.
After the meeting, a tweet and statements on local radio stations by Mullen expressing dissatisfaction that Lawton had not been fired reignited the debate, leading to an Oct. 30 editorial from a trio of state senators critical of how the university handled the situation.
Conservative lawmakers continued to question university leaders, and public-records requests from the Nebraska Republican Party and conservative media outlets added fuel to the flames, culminating in a meeting between Green, NU President Hank Bounds and several lawmakers on Nov. 16, the AAUP said.
The next day, Lawton was told she would no longer be permitted to teach at UNL, but according to the AAUP, administrators offered conflicting reasons for Lawton’s dismissal, one in the meeting between the graduate student and administrators and another publicly.
According to statements Lawton made to the AAUP, Green told Lawton he anticipated further threats against her once emails from the university’s communications team were provided through a public-records request by the Conservative Review website were released.
Writing in an editorial that appeared in several Nebraska newspapers, however, Green said Lawton’s behavior “was unacceptable,” and that “she will not teach at our university going forward because of this inappropriate behavior.”
The same day, Bounds wrote to Gov. Pete Ricketts and state lawmakers that the university was going to study the political climate at NU to ensure “no inappropriate political bias exists in our classrooms and anywhere else on campus."
"In the view of the investigating committee, Ms. Lawton was a convenient scapegoat for an administration under pressure to respond to such a charge," the committee wrote.
Policies and procedures
Before permanently ending her teaching appointment in November, UNL administrators failed to provide Lawton a hearing before a faculty committee — a procedure outlined in UNL policies and commonly practiced at universities across the country.
In place of a process where the administration would be required to "demonstrate adequate cause for dismissal," Lawton explored UNL's grievance procedure, which would have required her to shoulder the burden of proof in a lengthy and burdensome process.
Plowman acknowledged to the AAUP that no consideration was given to treating Lawton as a student, only as a member of the faculty, the report states, and NU's bylaws are unclear how graduate students also employed as lecturers should be treated — either as an employee or a student — in disciplinary procedures as well.
"Once the decision was made to treat Ms. Lawton as a faculty member, the procedures and protections for faculty as outlined in the University of Nebraska board of regents bylaws should have been applied," the report states.
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"There is little doubt that political pressure played a significant role in the Lawton case," the AAUP report says. "In one sense, it is at the very heart of it."
From interviews conducted by the committee, administrators said they were overwhelmed by and confused in the responses to the ongoing media attention Lawton's protest created.
The report says an Aug. 28 tweet by Bounds critical of Lawton's actions "pre-empted the efforts of the campus administration to follow up on the incident."
Bounds said Wednesday he stood by his statement, according to a spokeswoman.
Green and Plowman both told the investigation committee the ultimate decision to remove Lawton was to stem "continued harm" and ongoing disruption to the university — "vague standards that do not justify such an action under AAUP-supported principles."
Two state senators who helped keep the spotlight on NU — Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard and Tom Brewer of Gordon — said Wednesday they may have had some influence in the decision to end Lawton's role as a teacher at UNL.
But both senators who, along with Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, have continued publishing editorials critical of NU, said they were acting on behalf of their constituents.
"They are whining about the fact we have some oversight in what they do," Erdman said. "They can lay blame wherever they want to lay blame. The university is getting a black eye."
Brewer said he heard from taxpayers in his district and elsewhere.
"It may have played a factor, but the people we represent are voicing concerns," he said.
What happens next?
Copies of the investigation committee's findings were shared with UNL’s local AAUP chapter, campus administrators, and the individuals interviewed by the committee, including Lawton and Mullen, before it was made public this week, according to Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the national AAUP.
Green said Wednesday he was "disappointed in the conclusions of the report." Several objections Green raised with the AAUP appear as a footnote in the official version.
"We worked with the AAUP in their investigation and disagree with the findings," he said in a statement. "Our core responsibility is the quality education of our students and to ensure a classroom environment that is conducive to learning.
"I respect the concerns raised by the AAUP, but stand by a decision that I believe was in the best interest of our university community," Green added. Bounds said he agreed with the chancellor's response.
The AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure could vote to censure UNL when it meets later this month for its annual meeting, Tiede said.
A censure vote could have an immediate impact on UNL's reputation, making it harder to recruit top faculty, administrators and, in some cases, students, according to Julia Schleck, a professor of English at UNL and past president of the Nebraska Conference of the AAUP.
“Essentially, it signals to those who have choices this may not be the best choice, because this is an institution that doesn’t respect its own procedures and the norms of American higher education,” Schleck said.
UNL administrators will have a chance to negotiate with the AAUP and Lawton to reach a resolution and avoid censure. Schleck said the ball is in the administration's court.
Lawton, who is wrapping up her Ph.D., said no effort to reach a resolution has been extended. The last time she heard from UNL administrators was Nov. 17, she said Wednesday.