Last fall, two North Dakota State University faculty members won a $1.2 million federal grant for a sex education program for teenagers. But the university’s president says the program won’t be implemented after all, and some professors say the administration is bowing to political pressure and violating academic freedom.
The two faculty members, one an associate professor of human development and family science and the other an assistant professor of nursing, won the Department of Health and Human Services grant in September. The Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care overhaul, included money for states to develop programs aimed at helping teens prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases using both abstinence and contraception. After North Dakota government officials did not apply for the funds, in part because they did not want to teach about contraception in schools, the federal government allowed local organizations to apply for the grants instead.
The professors, Brandy Randall and Molly Secor-Turner, planned to use the three-year grant for a sexual education program for at-risk teens in the Fargo area, programming developed in partnership with the region’s Planned Parenthood office.
A state law requires North Dakota public schools to promote abstinence in sex education. The Planned Parenthood/North Dakota State program, which would have included information about contraception as well as abstinence, would have been based in the community, not in schools, and participants would have needed parental permission.
The university announced the grant  in September, but it went largely unnoticed until January, when a state legislator appeared on a conservative talk radio show to decry the university’s partnership with Planned Parenthood and intent to teach comprehensive sexual education to teens.
Bette Grande, a Republican representative, criticized the university for going against the legislature’s wishes in allowing its faculty to apply for a grant that the state had turned down, and threatened to cut the university’s funding in retaliation. “When I see something that says this is Planned Parenthood -- they’re not even a part of the state of North Dakota, and they shouldn’t be a part of North Dakota,” Grande said. “They’re not a part of how we do business in this state.”
On Wednesday, the university’s president, Dean Bresciani, appeared on the same radio show and announced that the college was freezing the grant money and would probably return it to the federal government.
“There’s a lot of confusion over what the project is and would do,” Bresciani said, but he said the question was a “moot point” because recent legal analysis suggested that proceeding with the project would violate state law.
“What we’ve found is a very specific codicil of the law that makes it clear that it cannot be with Planned Parenthood, and unless we can work around that -- and again, I’m not holding out hope on that -- we will have to go to the direction of returning the resources,” Bresciani said. The university, he said, “always wants to be in compliance with state law and state lawmakers’ intent.”
The decision, as well as the fact that it was apparently made without a discussion with the two faculty members who won the grant, outraged many faculty members.
“We believe that your decision to err on the side of a few legislators, who are known for their anti-Planned Parenthood agendas, represents a concession of academic freedom, arguably the most singular tenet of the academy and the most deterministic for the long-term success of any institution of higher education,” the president of the Faculty Senate, Thomas Stone Carlson, wrote in an open letter  to Bresciani.
The state’s code forbids federal funds passing through a state agency to be used as “family planning funds” by an organization that performs abortion. But the grant clearly stated that it would not be used for family planning, and it falls under a part of federal law over which judges ruled the state law had no jurisdiction.
“A major research university like NDSU should not be involved in telling its faculty that they cannot pursue their areas of research because it is concerned about offending the political views of some members of the legislature,” Carlson wrote on behalf of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee.
In an e-mail to the entire university  sent Thursday afternoon, Bresciani said that the legal questions emerged after the grant was awarded and that freezing the funds for a full investigation was the “only responsible action.” No decision has been made about the eventual fate of the program, he said.
He also praised the two faculty members who won the grant, saying that being awarded more than $1 million in federal funds was “not typical and suggests a rather compelling and impressive proposal.”
“We are constantly confronted with external political pressures of all shapes and forms, so the current situation is nothing new,” Bresciani said. “In short, though, political pressure is not nor cannot be the basis on which we make academic decisions. At the same time, I hope you will agree that we have no choice but to abide by the laws of North Dakota."
The decision to freeze the funds has already drawn praise from groups opposing abortion, who framed it as a victory  over Planned Parenthood.