Scapegoating a Department?

University of Nebraska professors want board to defend them against Republican politicians who, after incident with lecturer, have launched a series of salvos against English faculty members and the entire institution.

November 29, 2017
 
From website of Nebraska English department

Disappointed with the University of Nebraska’s response thus far to increasing criticism from Republican state lawmakers, professors are asking the system’s Board of Regents to defend them against political attacks.

“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," reads an open letter to the regents signed by more than 100 faculty members from the university’s three campuses.

"We are concerned that at the highest levels of the University of Nebraska system, decisions involving the future of 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," the letter continues. "We fear that financial hostage taking by members of the state government will result in changes by the administration in the intellectual offerings of the university and opportunities for our students."

Still collecting signatures, the state branch of the American Association of University Professors plans to send the letter to the regents later this week.

Public institutions across the country are facing all kinds of political pressure, but much of what’s happening in Nebraska can be traced to a single event at the Lincoln flagship. In late August, a lecturer and a professor in English were recorded protesting an on-campus recruiting table for Turning Point USA, the conservative group behind Professor Watchlist. In the video, the lecturer, Courtney Lawton, who is also a graduate student, called the undergraduate behind the table a “neo-fascist Becky” and flipped her off.

Lincoln removed Lawton from the classroom soon thereafter. Local news coverage included numerous interviews with conservative students and faculty members who said they had no residual concerns about the Lincoln campus political climate.

Still, three Republican state senators have said they expect the university to shape up and offer more “accountability” and “transparency” with respect to the environment for conservative students.

In public statements, the state senators have questioned whether university professors are hostile to conservative students and whether administrators can remain impartial when investigating on-campus political incidents. Especially concerning to faculty members, the state senators also have questioned the curriculum.

In an op-ed eventually published this month in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska State Senators Tom Brewer, Steve Erdman and Steve Halloran asked, “Does anyone teach English anymore at [Lincoln]?”

“The English department has proudly condemned President Trump’s executive order to suspend immigrant travel, and it has recently reiterated its support for the LGBTQA community,” they wrote. “Most disturbing, though, is the fact that the English department’s webpage is missing anything which even remotely resembles a traditional English education.”

“Strangely missing” from the department’s core values, they said, are “traditional English department words such as ‘classic literature studies,’ ‘writing,’ ‘poetry,’ ‘fiction,’ ‘grammar’ and ‘novel.’”

Joy Castro, a professor of English at Lincoln, responded with her own op-ed, saying that if the senators, upon visiting the department’s website, had “simply clicked on the readily available link Course Schedules and then Undergraduate Catalog, they’d have seen dozens of our English courses listed, such as: Writing and Inquiry; Introduction to Literature; Introduction to Poetry; Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton; The Novel 1700-1900; American Authors to 1900; Writing for Film and Literary History.”

Like “other world-class research institutions,” she said, “we teach these traditional courses all the time, in addition to more contemporary subjects and methodologies. The website doesn’t foreground them because everyone takes it entirely for granted that we teach such things.”

Members of the English department faculty also have been the subject of extensive open records requests this semester from conservative groups, with keywords including everything from “Trump” to “teaching.”

Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English at Lincoln and president of the state AAUP, said she’s been in Nebraska for 10 years and has never seen this level of contempt for higher education.

“This is definitely something new,” she said Tuesday. “But we felt it was high time for someone to push back on what we feel is an entirely unjust and entirely inaccurate depiction of the university.”

Administrators' responses to the politicians have so far been mixed. Ronnie Green, Lincoln's chancellor, wrote to three state senators about their op-ed, saying he found their “falsehoods and distortions defamatory and an egregious breach of the trust that Nebraskans put in each of us.” The university, he said, “will not be politicized and will not be used as a pawn."

But in separate statements released later this month -- and a day after state lawmakers reportedly pushed for Lawton’s dismissal -- both Green and System President Hank Bounds said that the lecturer will no longer teach on campus. They announced a series of other changes, starting with Gallup studies of campus climates. 
 
Two university spokespeople also recently resigned after the release of emails related to the August incident. Both were publicly accused of trying to “spin” the altercation in the university's favor. Bounds in comments addressed to the state Legislature and Republican Governor Pete Ricketts said he'd hold his staff "accountable."

The new faculty letter warns that if “the governor or his surrogates in the Legislature interfere with the intellectual freedom of the faculty, one of the state’s most precious resources will be squandered in a political power grab, as the quality of work at our university and the value of a degree from the University of Nebraska will quickly decline.”

AAUP’s national office wrote separately to Lincoln’s administration Tuesday, saying that in addition to “evident procedural issues, we remain concerned that Lawton was suspended in response to her speech as a citizen, raising questions whether the action infringed upon her academic freedom. These questions remain unresolved in the absence of affordance to Lawton of any academic due process.”

Schleck said standard procedures for dismissing lecturers were not followed in Lawton's case.

Melissa Lee, a spokeswoman for the university system, had no immediate comment Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Lincoln campus also declined comment on the faculty's concerns.

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