Nebraska’s Critical Race Theory Debate

State’s governor says university regents should oppose discussions of structural racism and suggests censure by professors’ group is an “honor.”

July 28, 2021
 
Governor Pete Ricketts/Twitter

Nebraska’s governor is publicly pressuring the state university system’s Board of Regents to pass a resolution against critical race theory.

“I strongly urge the Board of Regents to pass the resolution opposing the imposition of Critical Race Theory on students, so we keep academic freedom alive and well at the University of Nebraska,” Republican governor Pete Ricketts tweeted this week.

The resolution in question, proposed by Regent Jim Pillen, another Republican, who is running to succeed term-limited Ricketts, says that “America is the best country in the world and anyone can achieve the American Dream here.” Critical race theory doesn’t “promote inclusive and honest dialogue and education on campus” and its proponents “seek to silence opposing views and disparage important American ideals,” the resolution also says.

The proposal isn’t framed as a ban, per se, but it says that the regents “oppose any imposition of critical race theory in curriculum.” If passed, the resolution could nevertheless carry significant weight as a policy, especially as the meaning of “imposition” is somewhat open. Is a term paper an imposition, for instance? The University of Nebraska at Lincoln last year committed to a “journey for anti-racism and racial equity” that will involve -- among other things -- the student experience. Is that an imposition?

Critical race theory itself has also become something of a nebulous concept in public discussions, as most of the opposition to it centers on discussions of structural racism, not the deep theory that emerged from critical legal studies decades ago.

Nebraska is just one of many states embroiled in discussions about the role of critical race theory and structural racism in public education. But whereas many of these debates have happened around legislative proposals, Ricketts is weighing in on a proposal to be decided by regents, not lawmakers. And whereas other states’ debates have centered on diversity training, the Nebraska resolution explicitly addresses the curriculum.

This isn't the first time Ricketts has endorsed the proposal. Earlier this month, he thanked Pillen on Twitter for "leading the fight against this divisive and anti-American philosophy!"

Training vs. Teaching

Training-specific bans on critical race theory don’t necessarily insulate the curriculum, in any case. Iowa recently passed a law saying that public colleges and universities must “ensure that any mandatory staff or student training” does not “teach, advocate, act upon or promote” various “divisive concepts” about race or sex. But Iowa State University is already advising faculty members that “courses that include the identified specific defined concepts may be considered ‘mandatory’ if they are required for a specific degree program, even though students may choose between many degree programs.” Moreover, Iowa State advises, in “courses where specific defined concepts are examined and studied, they should be germane to the subject matter of the course and overall curriculum.”

For example, Iowa State’s guidance says, “if all civil engineering students were required to participate in a class session in which specific defined concepts were taught, such a requirement could violate the act given the mandatory nature and because the specific defined concepts are arguably not germane to the overall civil engineering curriculum.” In contrast, however, “if the department held a voluntary seminar for students addressing specific defined concepts, the act would not be applicable.”

Iowa State’s provost also cited the new law in rejecting faculty-backed changes to the U.S. diversity requirement.

In Nebraska, Ricketts’s comments challenge the apparent will of University of Nebraska system president Ted Carter and four campus chancellors, who last week issued a joint statement in defense of academic freedom.

“Issues around race, equity and the fight against racism are an important part of our country’s story and they have an appropriate place in our classrooms,” Carter and the chancellors wrote. “Our policies guard against the introduction of matters that are irrelevant to the subject at hand. We further expect and believe that in discussing ideas, our instructors make their classrooms places of robust and open debate, where all viewpoints are considered and all may express their opinions freely.”

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Regarding Pillen’s proposal specifically, Carter and the chancellors said that "we have significant concerns about the resolution and how it would be interpreted by the faculty, staff and students we hope to recruit and retain. We will continue to work together and with the board to vigorously protect and defend academic freedom at the University of Nebraska."

It’s widely assumed that regents will vote on the proposal at a regularly scheduled meeting next month, but the agenda for that meeting has not yet been published. Pillen served as board chair in 2020. The new chair, Regent Paul Kenney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the proposal.

Ricketts, the governor, also tweeted that Nebraska’s flagship public campus, at Lincoln, “should consider it an honor” to remain on the American Association of University Professors’ censure list “alongside notable conservative institutions.” Ricketts listed three of those other institutions by name: Brigham Young University and Catholic University of America, which are both religiously affiliated, and Hillsdale College, a politically aspirant institution that was involved in drafting the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission report.

Previously, the AAUP had planned to look into removing the Lincoln campus from its list of censured institutions, which includes dozens of colleges and universities. But the professors’ group said last week that it would suspend a Nebraska site visit in light of the anti-critical race theory proposal.

The AAUP censures institutions for alleged violations of academic freedom. Lincoln landed on the AAUP’s censure list in 2018 over a politically charged case involving a graduate student lecturer who flipped off a conservative student activist on the campus green. The AAUP determined that Lincoln caved to public pressure when it said the lecturer would not teach again.

On Twitter, Ricketts has also seemed to criticize a group of students who play sports who oppose the regents' proposal, tweeting that the group “bills itself as an organization building coalitions to advocate for liberal issues.”

A spokesperson for the Lincoln campus said Tuesday said that the university had no new comment on the matter. The university has already said that it respects the AAUP’s “right to adjust its own processes” and looks “forward to continuing to work with them.”

Lincoln’s chancellor, Ronnie D. Green, a signatory on the academic freedom statement, has also tweeted that “Our classrooms are meant to be places of learning, discovery, exploration and debate. Racism is an ugly truth in America -- and we cannot and should not shy away from openly discussing it.”

In notifying Lincoln that it could not possibly reassess the climate for academic freedom there with the regents' proposal pending, the AAUP wrote to Green, “We hope that the board of regents will demonstrate the University of Nebraska’s commitment to academic freedom by declining to adopt the critical race theory resolution. If the board does so, we would anticipate resuming the virtual site visit as soon as possible.”

Mark Criley, a senior program officer at the AAUP who wrote the memo to Green, on Tuesday underscored his message, saying that “an institution whose governing board dictates the subjects that its faculty members may or may not address in their classrooms fails to honor the basic tenets of academic freedom that enable institutions of higher learning to seek the truth and promote the common good.”

This principle holds “no matter the content of the views a board seeks to require or prohibit in instruction,” Criley added.

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