Ibrahim Pillen Carter BOR 8.13

Student Regent Batool Ibrahim and Regent Jim Pillen watch President Ted Carter speak during the Board of Regents meeting on Aug. 13, 2021, at Varner Hall in Lincoln, Nebraska.

University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Nebraska’s governor in 2022, and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts are again at odds with UNL’s Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity, lambasting its newly released action plan as unconstitutional, divisive and another iteration of critical race theory.

Hours after the action plan was publicly announced Wednesday, Pillen tweeted that the Board of Regents had not approved “this so-called journey” and that the initiative itself violated the Nebraska Constitution and regents bylaws. He added that calling Nebraska students and staff racist or giving preferential treatment in hiring based on race is wrong.

“I believe that students and faculty should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Pillen said in his tweets, echoing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “It is unacceptable that the Board of Regents was not informed about this journey plan until after the ink was dried.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green and Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Marco Barker announced the UNL Commitment to Action Toward Its Journey in an email Wednesday, outlining the steps the campus community will take to improve racial equity.

“We emphasize that racism is often structural and embedded into systems,” the action plan states. “It is important to make this distinction as we strive to transform our culture and institution into an institution where anti-racism is part of our goal to be a place where every person and every interaction not only matters but results in equitable outcomes.”

Pillen did not publicly refute the journey until the co-leaders — Lory J. Dance, Kwame Dawes, Anna W. Shavers, Kara Mitchell Viesca, Sergio C. Wals and Colette M. Yellow Robe — released a statement in early August 2021 admonishing his then-proposed resolution against critical race theory. The co-leaders said the resolution represented “a thinly veiled challenge” to UNL’s work against racism and discrimination.

According to a media release, Green called Ricketts on Tuesday, in advance of the plan, to say UNL would be releasing a plan regarding “hiring practices.” Ricketts says he urged Green to avoid “divisive policies,” and Green has since misrepresented his position to stakeholders.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in the release.

Ricketts asserts that from “racially motivated hiring practices to harmful trainings,” the action plan will “inject critical race theory (CRT) into every corner of campus.”

“It will pit people against each other by conditioning everyone to see others through the lens of race rather than as individuals with unique strengths,” he said. “UNL’s focus should be on educational excellence, not ideological indoctrination.”

Pillen led efforts this summer for regents to formally oppose the imposition of critical race theory in curriculum, training and programming across NU. He justified his actions saying critics like the co-leaders only proved the resolution’s necessity

Ricketts and 22 state senators urged swift passage of Pillen’s resolution the week of its vote in August and criticized the co-leaders for their statement. In the same statements from the co-leaders, they wrote that opponents to CRT were emboldening white supremacist groups, which Ricketts and the others said was an outrageous claim meant to silence opposition.

The resolution, which needed five of the eight sitting regents’ support, failed by two votes on Aug. 13. Still, Pillen committed to further oppose the theory in higher education and to ban it from Nebraska’s K-12 schools if he became governor. 

“We now know why the UNL administration was so opposed to the Board of Regents resolution that would have banned CRT from being applied at the university,” Ricketts said.

The journey’s action plan does not reference critical race theory, but Pillen and Ricketts again urged action against the idea.

 The plan specifically calls for, among other action points:

  • A review of hiring and retention policies.

  • Greater support for the Institute for Ethnic Studies.

  • Establishing new programs for African American, Native American and Hispanic American Studies.

  • Strengthened relationships with the UNL and Lincoln Police Departments.

  • Examining university COVID-19 mitigation responses and seeing whether they were equitable for faculty, staff and students from racially minoritized backgrounds.

“For nearly 153 years, the University of Nebraska has been working to provide access to exceptional higher education, and to spark research and creativity activity that enriches our university, our community and our state,” Green and Barker said. “The Commitment to Action is part of that overall effort; one we are absolutely committed to continue and one for which we know you will continue to hold us accountable.”

A representative from Pillen’s campaign pointed The Daily Nebraskan to the following two components of the Nebraska Constitution and regents bylaws:

Article I, Section 30 of the Nebraska Constitution, which prohibits the discrimination or grant of preferential treatment to individuals or groups based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education or contracting. 

Bylaw 3.0 is the regents’ “Equal Opportunity” statement, stating that recruitment, selection, employment, transfer, promotion, demotion, training and pay of employees will be done without considering race, color, sex, religion, national origin or political affiliation.

“The University will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to these factors,” the bylaw reads.

Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, told The Daily Nebraskan the action plan is not something that would require regent approval and is not in violation.

“We are very aware of the obligations of Nebraska state law and the Constitution, and this does not violate either,” Fiddelke said.

The Daily Nebraskan followed up with Pillen’s campaign team about whether there are any plans to stop implementation of the plan, prevent further work of the co-leaders or look at Green’s relevant conduct.

“Discussions are ongoing,” John Gage, a member of Pillen’s campaign said in an email.