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Political Pressure in Nebraska

AAUP says University of Nebraska-Lincoln violated Courtney Lawton's academic freedom when it ended her teaching appointment over a high-profile political dispute on campus.

May 10, 2018
 
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Courtney Lawton

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln bowed, at least to some degree, to political pressure when it permanently removed a lecturer in English from the classroom last fall. In so doing, and in denying her the dismissal hearing to which she was entitled by campus policy, Nebraska may have violated her academic freedom.

So concludes a new investigative report from the American Association of University Professors. The document provides new insight into the locally infamous Courtney Lawton case at Nebraska and the university's shifting rationales for her suspension. It also sets the stage for a possible vote to censure Nebraska's administration at the AAUP’s annual meeting next month.

AAUP censure for alleged violations of academic freedom is a symbolic gesture, since the association has no actual authority over the institutions with which it disagrees. But many campuses see censure as a reputational black eye and work with AAUP to lift it.

The university, which participated in AAUP's on-campus investigation, expressed "disappointment" with the association's findings this week and stood by its decision to effectively end Lawton's teaching appointment, in the interest of the campus as a whole.

In August, Lawton -- who was then an adjunct at Nebraska -- was recorded protesting an on-campus recruiting table for Turning Point USA. That's the conservative group behind Professor Watchlist, which many academics believe distorts their views and chills academic freedom. Lawton called the undergraduate behind the table a “neo-fascist Becky” who “wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids,” and flipped her off. The video was shared on online, went viral and drew the ire of Republican state lawmakers.

Nebraska removed Lawton from the classroom days after the incident, initially citing security concerns. Lawton said that because she was told the suspension was not disciplinary, she raised no objections at that time, according to AAUP's report. Yet she soon received a letter of rebuke for her behavior. Two months later, the university said she would not teach on campus again. According to AAUP, Nebraska has since changed its rationale for suspending Lawton, saying she physically blocked access to the student activist's table -- a claim she denies.

Some lawmakers continue to express concern about the climate for conservative students on campus. Several have pressed for more “accountability” on that issue and even questioned the direction of the curriculum, alarming many professors.

Julia Schleck, graduate chair of English at Nebraska and past president of state's AAUP conference, said this week that “given how critical academic freedom and shared faculty governance is to a research institution like [Nebraska],” the events of the last year are “deeply upsetting and undoubtedly affect both the university's reputation nationally and the morale of faculty and others on campus.”

Schleck said she hoped University of Nebraska System president Hank M. Bounds, who has been closely involved in the Lawton case, and the system's Board of Regents would be “better stewards” of the campus’s future moving forward. That means working with AAUP to avoid a possible censure vote, she said, whatever that entails.

What’s in the Video?

AAUP’s report says that Nebraska first suspended for safety reason, then cited her “disrespectful, taunting or intimidating” behavior. Administrators reportedly told the investigating committee that Lawton's own speech wasn't the problem, but rather her suppressing the undergraduate's free expression by blocking access to the Turning Point USA table. The student video widely shared online does not show Lawton blocking the table. But the university told AAUP's committee that a campus surveillance tape that captured the incident shows Lawton cutting off other students' physical access to the table.

Lawton and other professors who have seen the surveillance video say it does not show her blocking the table, however. Nebraska denied the investigating committee's request to see the footage.

Nebraska's campus policies and procedures -- along with widely followed AAUP standards -- say Lawton is entitled to an opportunity to defend herself in a hearing before faculty peers. But she was denied that opportunity through the end of her suspension and the end of her faculty appointment. AAUP says that means she was essentially summarily dismissed. (She remains a graduate student on campus.)

While the investigating committee couldn't discern the “exact weight or role of specific political actors,” AAUP's report says, “we find it impossible not to see the heavy hand of political pressure in the decision taken by the administration to remove Lawton from the classroom without recourse to available institutional policies and procedures.”

In interviews with the committee, for example, both Lincoln chancellor Ronnie Green and Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman “acknowledged that the ultimate decision to remove Lawton from any teaching assignment for the spring semester, whether in person or online, was not primarily a response to concerns for the safety of the instructor and her students nor to her alleged misconduct." Rather, they reportedly said it was a “reaction to concerns about ‘continued harm’ to the university and ongoing ‘disruption’ to the university’s business, vague standards that do not justify such an action under AAUP-supported principles.”

The timeline of events alone is suspect, the report says, in that Republican state senator Steve Erdman -- who has publicly criticized Lawton’s actions -- met with Green and System President Bounds on Nov. 16 about the case. The next day, the chancellor met with more state legislators and told Lawton that she would not be teaching during the spring semester.

Green said in a statement that he “respects the concerns raised by the AAUP” but stands by “a decision that I believe was in the best interest of our university community.”

Expressing “disappointment” and “disagreement” with the report, Green said, “Our core responsibility is the quality education of our students and to ensure a classroom environment that is conducive to learning.”

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