Pillen BOR

Regent Jim Pillen (right) smiles as Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature Mike Hilgers (left) speaks to the Board of Regents during their meeting at the Innovation Campus Conference Center on Friday, April 9, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

As he vies for the Republican nomination to be Nebraska’s next governor, University of Nebraska Regent and gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen has introduced a resolution opposing the imposition of critical race theory across the NU system.

The resolution, first reported by Fox News on Thursday, has garnered mixed reactions from the university and surrounding community as well as prominent local figures. It will be presented to the Board of Regents at its next meeting on Aug. 13. Although the proposal is to oppose critical race theory at NU, Melissa Lee, NU’s chief communication officer, said in an email it is not a required part of NU curriculum.

Board of Regents policy allows any regent or the NU president to bring a resolution before the board for a vote.

Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted his support for the proposal also on Thursday and thanked Pillen for “leading the fight against this divisive and anti-American philosophy.” 

Ricketts, who was first elected governor in 2014, is unable to run for a third term due to term limits. He has not publicly endorsed a candidate for the 2022 election.

“Whereas the campus and facilities of a university are places for open reflection, discussion, study, research, and learning and … whereas Critical Race Theory proponents seek to silence opposing views and disparage important American ideals,” the resolution states, “be it resolved that the Regents of the University of Nebraska oppose any imposition of Critical Race Theory in curriculum.”

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln spokesperson declined to comment further. 

Kara Viesca, an associate professor of teaching, learning and teacher education at UNL, said the theory is complex and nuanced. It was developed by a group of critical legal scholars in the late 1970s and early 1980s because they felt there was not a sufficient analytic tool to understand why civil rights movement advances from the 1960s had stalled, according to Viesca. 

She said critical race theory is a way to look at systems, policies, laws and practices to try to understand how some might be aiding in ongoing race inequities. 

“It is an analytic tool to try to understand racial inequity and the sources of racial inequity, so it really stems from a definition of racism, that it expands beyond personal acts of prejudice and discrimination,” Viesca said. 

Critical race theory has recently become a controversial subject and the center of national debate with many differing opinions and viewpoints. Many prominent political figures, such as Ricketts and Pillen, have publicly aired their opposition to critical race theory.

In June, Ricketts announced a series of town hall meetings and used the opportunity to express that critical race theory is a “philosophy of history that is fundamentally anti-capitalist and aims to destroy our country’s institutions.” Ricketts said the “ugly parts of American history” and racism must be rooted out, but it can and should be done without the theory.

Pillen was asked by the Nebraska Freedom Coalition to address the theory at the Board of Regents’ June meeting, but the meeting came and went without such mention. Now, he’s come out in full force against the theory prior to the August meeting.

“I believe critical race theory is factually and morally wrong,” Pillen said on Thursday, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “I do not believe in teaching children to judge each other on the basis of their skin color. There is no place in our classrooms for this ideology.”

Although there is support for the proposal, there are critics in the community and at UNL, such as Viesca. She said she believes the proposal is based on misconceptions and inaccuracies about critical race theory and said she believes it is also a blatant disregard for the principles of academic freedom that UNL and the NU system as a whole have committed to.

In April, the Board of Regents unanimously passed sweeping amendments supporting faculty and staff academic freedom, which NU President Ted Carter had promised to do when he was selected as president. Pillen led the search team that led to Carter’s presidency.

Viesca said the misconceptions include that any conversation about race is critical race theory and that the theory is often linked to being about hatred and promoting division. 

Instead, critical race theory is meant to address the issues of division between people by having open discussions about race inequity, especially when there are opposing viewpoints and perspectives, according to Viesca. She said she believes any misconceptions around critical race theory come from a cultural practice of evading conversations around race. 

“I was raised in a community where I was told that racism was dealt with with the civil rights movement, that we no longer had racism and I shouldn’t talk about race, I shouldn’t notice race, that race isn’t something that matters anymore in the United States,” Viesca said. 

While many people feel uncomfortable talking about race and racism and avoid having those discussions, Viesca said they still must be had.

“I had that discomfort myself, but ignoring the issues of racial inequity and suggesting that we can’t talk about race and can’t talk about those things to solve them just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Viesca said. “We need to fully understand the things that have happened historically as well as their happening contemporarily in order to truly achieve racial justice.”

It is unclear whether the resolution will get support and to what extent from fellow regents when the resolution is formally presented to the rest of the board on Friday, Aug. 13.