Nearly 70 UNL faculty members say incident between lecturer and conservative student sparked ‘sustained attack’ by Ricketts, others

Close to 70 UNL faculty members say in a letter that Gov. Pete Ricketts and others want to subject the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to “ideological intervention.”

An incident at the university on Aug. 25 has given conservatives in the state an opportunity to attack UNL, the letter says. In the incident, a conservative student was called a “neo-fascist” and flipped the bird by a UNL graduate student-lecturer.

The professors say Ricketts and some state senators tied to the governor “have leveraged a single campus interaction into a sustained attack” on UNL.

Professor David Moshman, said some professors worry that UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green’s job is in jeopardy.

Moshman said he has been startled by the force of the episode.

“I’ve never seen such a serious external attack on UNL in the 40 years I’ve been here,” said Moshman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology and president-elect of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska.

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard was one of three state senators who have questioned, in writing, whether the university welcomes conservative students and whether UNL could conduct a legitimate investigation into an incident involving a conservative student.

Erdman said he and State Sens. Steve Halloran of Hastings and Tom Brewer of Gordon want people of all political views to be treated with respect.

After reading the faculty letter, Erdman said Monday night, “We must be on the right track. I’m glad they’re listening.”

Moshman said some professors worry about Chancellor Green’s ability to remain at the helm because he initially only put a letter in the graduate student-lecturer’s file. That individual, Courtney Lawton, was subsequently removed from the classroom, but the reason given was concern for her safety and that of her students. More recently, Lawton was informed that she wouldn’t be invited back after her contract expires at the end of the school year.

The student, Kaitlyn Mullen of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, faced scorn from Lawton and several other grad students or professors on Aug. 25 as she recruited students for Turning Point USA, a conservative group.

Mullen said she was escorted home in tears by campus police.

The issue has become a rallying point for some conservatives across the state.

Erdman said he wasn’t pushing to have Green fired.

“That’s up to Hank Bounds,” Erdman said. Bounds is president of the NU system. Bounds’ spokeswoman said Monday night that Bounds “has complete confidence in Chancellor Green.”

Bounds and Green recently announced that they have stepped up their vigilance on the issue. For instance, a Gallup survey will be done on the NU campuses to assess the treatment of students of various political viewpoints.

Ricketts’ spokesman on Monday night issued a statement that read, in part: “The August incident has highlighted concerns about the liberal bent of academia. The University of Nebraska has an opportunity to set itself apart as a public university that fosters spirited debate and a supportive learning environment for students across the political spectrum.”

The professors’ letter also expresses concern that NU administrators may bow to state leaders’ pressure. Administrators must “categorically reject political interference in the good work being done” at UNL, the letter says.

Less than two weeks ago, Green wrote a piece saying that a university is a place for the melding of free speech, tolerance and respectful behavior.

“Finding the right balance isn’t always easy. Sometimes, we come up short. August 25 was one of those times,” he wrote.

Two UNL public relations people have resigned, citing differences of opinion with the NU system over emails related to the incident. In the emails, the staffers discussed how they could spin the situation into a more favorable depiction of UNL.

The professors’ letter says the reaction to the Aug. 25 incident “has greatly surpassed the scope and import of the initial incident.”

The letter says the faculty members and retired professors worry that serious harm will be done to UNL.

“We believe it is imperative to express our alarm now, before irrevocable damage is done to the mission of the university and the value it contributes to the state of Nebraska.”