Free Speech

Faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln worry a new resolution to be considered at the University of Nebraska Board of Regents’ August meeting could complicate UNL’s multi-year effort to remove themselves from the American Association of University Professors’ censure list.

The AAUP censured UNL in 2018 for violations to academic freedom, and faculty say the Regent and gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen’s resolution against “any imposition of critical race theory” across NU is a clear violation of the regents’ own bylaws.

“To see [academic freedom] violated at the highest level of the university’s governance, and deliberately, is incredibly frustrating,” Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English, said. “It’s demoralizing for the faculty, and I would think for the students as well.”

Last week, UNL’s Faculty Senate and local AAUP chapter came out with statements against the resolution, but UNL’s lack of an official public stance thus far has some faculty on edge.

Work has been done since the university was first censured to get UNL off the list as soon as possible, as it serves as a public shaming, or like a scarlet letter, according to Schleck. She said the removal process involves three main steps: correct what led to the violation, find remediation with the person or persons impacted and conduct a climate assessment through a series of interviews related to academic freedom and expression.

The first was met when the regents unanimously passed bylaw revisions in April.

“We managed to do that after quite a struggle,” David Woodman, a professor of practice in biological sciences, said. 

The other two are ongoing through negotiations and interviews, according to Schleck, a national AAUP committee member and past president of the Nebraska and UNL AAUP organizations.

But three months after the breakthrough in the censure removal process, Pillen’s resolution takes aim at components of academic freedom. It is directed at taking curriculum determination away from faculty when the review of such curricula should remain with professionals, according to Schleck.

Academic disciplines can change, Schleck said, and teachings change every year, but she said such evaluation is done by professionals in the field who have dedicated themselves to that work.

“There are definitely times when we say, ‘No, the teaching of something has changed and this is no longer appropriate, and it shouldn’t be included or should be handled differently or everyone should make sure to handle this,’” Schleck said, “but that’s something that we handle as professionals in the field.”

Another critical part of academic freedom is ensuring faculty are isolated from political influence and can teach without fear of retaliation from political figures, according to Woodman.

“As one of my colleagues says, ‘I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder to see if I’m upsetting a regent because I said “Juneteenth” or the “1619 Project,”’” he said.

Matt Cohen, an English professor and current AAUP UNL chapter president, said that critical race theory — more a toolbox, rather than a theory, for looking at the world and asking how it got this way — is important for analyzing disproportionate conditions facing marginalized communities.

“The university is like any other place: a setting for dialogue about this,” Cohen said.

Should the resolution pass, faculty say censure removal becomes less likely.

“I urge all of the regents to obviously make sure that this doesn’t pass,” Woodman said. “But if it did pass, I’m not certain that the university will get off censure frankly, personally speaking. If this did pass ... AAUP would definitely give the censure issue a very, very, very serious reexamination.”

Schleck said instructors who are teaching in areas that are being attacked, such as those that incorporate critical race theory into lessons, should also be supported.

“I deeply respect my colleagues who take that on,” Schleck said. “It’s a disproportionate burden, and I really appreciate their work, and I would expect that the administration would say something similar.”

In addition, all faculty need to be outspoken and need to correct what Christina Falci, an associate professor in sociology, said is a false narrative surrounding critical race theory.

“We’re educators, and we need to educate people,” Falci said. “I don’t know if everybody will hear us, but we need to at least try.”

While academic freedom deals particularly with faculty, Cohen stressed the freedom extends to students. 

“Ultimately, when we defend the freedom of professors to introduce difficult subjects into the classroom, we are defending your potential,” Cohen said. “That is what we are doing.”

Should faculty feel they need to censor themselves, Schleck said it would lead to a poor Nebraska education.

In a statement, Pillen said he is responsible to every citizen of Nebraska who “expect their values will be upheld” by NU.

“The imposition of Critical Race Theory on our students runs counter to those ideals by attempting to silence their dissenting opinions,” the statement reads. “This resolution affirms a fair and balanced dialogue on all issues.”

Leslie Reed, UNL’s public affairs director, said the university “has always supported academic freedom for faculty and staff and will continue to support academic freedom,” but UNL administrators have not yet taken an official stance. 

Conversations between NU President Ted Carter, Chancellor Ronnie Green and the other NU chancellors are ongoing, and a statement is expected soon, according to Melissa Lee, NU’s chief communication officer.

Both Cohen and Schleck said Pillen created a conflict of interest through his office, questioning his suitability to remain a regent, though he did not need to through his candidacy for governor. Regents serve six-year terms, and Pillen’s current term ends in 2024. He was first elected in 2012.

“It takes 15 minutes for a regent to introduce a ridiculous resolution,” Cohen said. “It took us years to get where we got with the amendments to the bylaws that will protect our most vulnerable faculty from violations of their academic freedom.”

The Board of Regents will meet on Aug. 13 in Varner Hall, 3835 Holdrege St. Contact information for individual regents may be found here.