LINCOLN, Neb. — University of Nebraska administrators assured the Board of Regents that they can straddle the chasm between opposing political views following an incident that sparked concerns about the political climate at the Lincoln campus.
University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green told the Board of Regents Tuesday that academic freedom and free expression are alive and well on the system’s campuses.
The Aug. 25 incident at the UNL campus involved graduate student-lecturer Courtney Lawton making an inappropriate hand gesture at second-year student Kaitlyn Mullen, who was recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA. Lawton also called Mullen a “neo-fascist.”
Lawton, who was initially relieved of her classroom duties, was fired last month.
Some professors said the university fired her without due process. Faculty members said they were concerned that university administrators were allowing outside political pressures to impact their decisions. More than 300 professors have signed a letter asking administrators to respect campus disciplinary procedures, shared governance with faculty and free speech.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the August incident “highlighted concerns about the liberal bent of academia.” Sens. Steve Erdman, Tom Brewer and Steve Halloran accused the university of not being welcoming to students with conservative viewpoints.
“As I see it, Nebraska can address these issues in one of two ways,” Bounds said. “We can let them divide us. Or we can work through these tough issues together in a way that makes Nebraska the best place to live, to work, to go to school, to do research, to be a student.
The university will hold workshops, discussions and a campus climate survey in response to the incident, Green said. The incident has presented “a learning opportunity to dig deep and look at if and how we can improve,” he said.
“I think we have an opportunity to be a model for really taking on these difficult questions in a way that moves us forward,” Bounds said.