State of the Profession: The Local Politics of Censure at UNL

By Julia Schleck

In June, the AAUP placed the University of Nebraska–Lincoln on its list of administrations censured for violations of principles of academic freedom and tenure, adding to a recent spate of censure and sanction actions involving flagship public universities in the Midwest. In some of these cases, it would appear that the offending administrations jumped with both feet onto the AAUP’s censure or sanction lists. In the case of UNL, the administration was pushed.

The UNL investigation centered on lecturer and graduate student Courtney Lawton. When Lawton protested—profanely—a recruiting table set up by Turning Point USA, the right-wing group behind the Professor Watchlist, she immediately became a target for the group and its allies. The criticism of Lawton was picked up and amplified by local politicians, who doggedly kept the case in the media spotlight and pressed university administrators to fire Lawton from her teaching position, even to the point of reminding the system president that they held the university’s purse strings. Later that year those strings would be yanked tight by Nebraska’s governor, Peter Ricketts, a member of the billionaire Ricketts family, who slashed the university’s budget in a way that struck even conservative state lawmakers as unduly severe. The legislature ultimately limited but did not entirely reverse these cuts. In the end, that single incident accomplished a great deal of political work for those who sought to use it to tarnish the reputation of an institution generally beloved by the citizens of the state (particularly when the Huskers football team is winning).

The local politics of this story are worth recalling because they remain in force in Nebraska as the university contemplates the steps it should take in seeking removal from the censure list. Any publicly known concessions to the AAUP— whether in policy revisions or discussions with the newly minted Dr. Lawton—will undoubtedly result in a coordinated onslaught in the local media by the same state senators who leaned so hard on university administrators last year. These senators have already attacked the AAUP and campus AAUP leaders, seeking to ensure that no productive discussions with the organization take place. One senator even stated that he considered the censure “a badge of honor.”

It is under the shadow of such political threats and their potential economic ramifications that efforts toward censure removal are taking place this year. The administration has undertaken a broad review of policies and is looking to clarify procedures and practices in order to ensure that policies are followed. Administrators have invited faculty members involved in the AAUP to participate in those discussions. While the issues at stake in the censure report are not explicitly on the table yet, reviewing UNL’s policies with an eye to increasing academic freedom protections and building a good working relationship between the administration and AAUP-associated faculty is at least a positive step, and it may result in a better campus climate overall.

UNL’s faculty senate has formed a committee charged with examining the issues surrounding the censure. The campus AAUP chapter is hosting an information session on the censure and sponsoring a new series of social gatherings to promote greater faculty organization and activity on campus. Faculty unity at UNL has been weak in recent years, so organizing will be a critical factor in any real improvements in the climate on campus.

Other campus and community organizations have also embraced the opportunity to hold public discussions on academic freedom. Lincoln’s main performing arts center will be hosting performances of Sedition, a play that dramatizes a World War I–era academic freedom case at UNL in which professors who disagreed with the Wilson administration were charged with sedition. The Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska will hold its annual meeting at UNL, as will the Nebraska AAUP conference. There will be no shortage of discussion of last year’s events, and the principles involved, on UNL’s campus. These conversations, we hope, will shift the political discourse in the state surrounding the censure and give UNL’s administration the breathing room it needs to tackle censure removal more directly and vigorously. It is clear that part of our task in promoting and upholding the value of academic freedom will be teaching our fellow citizens and elected representatives about the critical role it plays in our universities and in American society overall.

Julia Schleck is associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance.