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The American Association of University Professors governing council voted Saturday to remove the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from its list of censured administrations, ending the sanction after more than three years.

In 2018, the AAUP voted to censure UNL due to administrators’ handling of a situation between a graduate student lecturer — Courtney Lawton — and Turning Point USA organizers outside the Nebraska Union in 2017.

According to the AAUP, censure amounts to a public acknowledgment of an institution that is not observing “generally recognized principles of academic freedom” as approved by the AAUP and many other organizations.

An investigation by the AAUP said UNL did not renew Lawton’s contract, amounting to a “terminal suspension” and violating key foundations of academic freedom and due process.

Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English at UNL and the chair of the UNL AAUP chapter’s committee on academic freedom and tenure, said it’s within the university’s right to end an employment contract, and if not renewed at the end of the year, there is no internal review. However, when a contract isn’t renewed in the middle of the year, it’s subject to a review to ensure it’s for the right reasons, like professional incompetence, which is required to be reviewed by university bylaws.

The AAUP found issue with how the university waited for the contract to end, avoiding this review process.

Schleck told The Daily Nebraskan in July that censure removal involves three steps: 

  • First, universities must correct what led to the violation.

  • Second, they must find remediation with the person or persons impacted.

  • Finally, they must conduct a climate assessment through a series of interviews related to academic freedom and expression.

Schleck said she is delighted by the censure removal as academic freedom has the role to provide students the best possible education with confidence to pursue truth in all disciplines.

“It’s a moment to celebrate because it indicates that the university’s climate for academic freedom has significantly improved,” Schleck said.

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents passed bylaw revisions to codify protections for employees and address faculty members’ concerns in April, meeting the first requirement.

These revisions also moved to protect the loophole that existed during Lawton’s removal from the university, according to Schleck.

As negotiations and interviews continued, the representative conducting on-campus interviews reported favorably that UNL’s policies “certainly improved in response to AAUP’s censure,” according to an Oct. 29 committee report recommending the censure be removed.

Some interviewees were reportedly ambivalent while others were enthusiastic about the prospects of censure removal, but no one was in favor of keeping the censure, according to the report.

However, Regent Jim Pillen, who is seeking the 2022 Republican nomination for governor, introduced a resolution to ban the imposition of critical race theory in curriculum, training and programming, which placed the removal process in jeopardy on July 21. The AAUP suspended the removal process until regents addressed the resolution.

“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 institution of higher learning to seek the truth and promote the common good,” Mark Criley, a senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, wrote in a July 21 letter to Chancellor Ronnie Green announcing the suspension.

Criley said UNL had made “considerable progress” and the bylaw revisions were encouraging, but it would be “inconceivable” to recommend censure removal given the resolution.

The same day as the letter, NU President Ted Carter, Green, University of Nebraska Omaha Chancellor Joanne Li, University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeff Gold and University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen issued a statement in defense of academic freedom, citing significant concerns with Pillen’s resolution.

“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,” the leaders wrote. “That commitment to free expression is at the heart of our work as an institution of higher learning.”

In the committee’s recommendation for removal, officials said this response was “especially welcome” given that political pressure on administrators “was at the very heart” of what led to censure.

Pillen’s resolution failed by two votes on Aug. 13, and Carter said that day that conversations about critical race theory do happen in some courses. However, these courses are not required for graduation and resulting discussions are not a threat to students.

“They are to think for themselves and be a future of not only Nebraska but our nation and the world,” Carter said. “I am very excited about the future. I am very excited about what I heard today, and I don’t think anything in our 152-year history has ever moved forward without student support.”

In a statement, Green said UNL’s collaboration with the NU system and Board of Regents created clearer procedures and stronger protections for academic freedom.

“This is good for our institution,” Green said in the statement. “I am pleased to come to the end of this effort and thank the AAUP for affirming the changes we made.”

David Woodman, a professor of practice and a non-tenure track representative on the UNL Faculty Senate Executive Committee, said the censure removal is welcome news.

“I applaud President Carter’s fulfilling his commitment, while a candidate for his position, to getting UNL off censure,” Woodman said in an email. “It is just one step towards ultimately providing [non-tenure track] faculty the job security, due process rights and salary advancements that other faculty enjoy.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:25 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2021, to include a statement from Chancellor Ronnie Green. This article was again updated at 2:50 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2021, to clarify the incident that led to censure.