National faculty group rebukes UNL for bowing to ‘political pressure’ after incident with grad student

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln botched its handling of an incident that exploded into a national discussion about liberalism on college campuses, a major organization of professors says.

The American Association of University Professors issued a report Thursday criticizing UNL officials for their response to an Aug. 25 incident in which a graduate student-lecturer mocked a conservative sophomore.

The AAUP, the biggest group in the nation representing professors and graduate students in all disciplines, said UNL administrators succumbed to conservatives’ political pressure when they suspended Courtney Lawton until the end of her contract. The suspension amounted to dismissal, the AAUP says.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said in a written statement: “I am disappointed in the conclusions of the report. We worked with the AAUP in their investigation and disagree with the findings.”

The incident became a national rallying point for conservatives who criticize universities as havens of liberalism. Three Nebraska state senators wrote a letter to media outlets asking whether NU is hostile toward conservative students. University officials responded, announcing plans to assess the campus environment at all NU institutions.

An AAUP committee in June could recommend censure to an AAUP national council and those at the group’s annual meeting. The latter two groups would vote on the matter.

The 11-page report says: “There is little doubt that political pressure played a significant role in the Lawton case; in one sense, it is at the very heart of it.”

The AAUP also said that UNL failed to give Lawton an appropriate hearing before a faculty body.

Founded in 1915, the AAUP argues for academic freedom and shared governance with professors, and defines professionalism and standards for higher education. The 40,000-member group has 56 colleges on its “censured” list. Most of them are small, but the University of Missouri is included on the list.

The Missouri situation involved a faculty member who ordered media members out of a public place during a protest and swore at police at another protest. The university’s governing board fired her while under pressure from Missouri state legislators. The faculty member, Melissa Click, received no faculty hearing, and the AAUP censured the university for that and other reasons in the Click case.

One or two universities get censured each year. A censure typically is doled out when a school doesn’t follow widely accepted principles on academic freedom and tenure. Censure is viewed as an embarrassment for an institution and may have some impact on recruiting solid administrators and professors.

The UNL incident received national attention that persists, even though the situation took place more than eight months ago. Public radio’s “This American Life” recently did a feature on the situation, as did the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lawton saw sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen at an outdoor table at UNL, recruiting students for the conservative organization Turning Point USA. Lawton flipped off Mullen and claimed that Mullen “hates DACA kids” and “wants to defund public schools,” and called her a “neo-fascist” and a “Becky.”

The incident introduced the slang word “Becky” to many Nebraskans. It is an epithet used against white women.

The belittling and harsh words from Lawton continued, and Mullen left in tears.

Mullen filmed some of the incident, and national conservative outlets seized on the video as evidence that universities are steaming pits of liberalism.

Lawton was initially removed from her classroom duties, allegedly for her safety and that of her students. UNL continued to be pounded by negative calls and emails, and some Nebraska state senators demanded a stronger response from the university.

The graduate student-lecturer received a letter of reprimand saying she had engaged in disrespectful conduct “outside the bounds” of acceptability. The letter was described as a warning.

But Lawton was also accused of blocking Mullen’s table and silencing her. Eventually UNL decided that Lawton would remain suspended until the end of the school year, when her contract ran out.

Administrators disagree with the AAUP over whether it was a suspension or dismissal; whether Lawton was a student or faculty member; whether Lawton had genuinely “silenced” Mullen; whether Lawton acted at that moment as a citizen or a teacher; and whether Lawton displayed fireable behavior, such as “incompetence” or “gross misconduct.” Most of those questions affected the severity of her punishment or the kind of hearing she might have received.

Green also said administrators’ “core responsibility is the quality education of our students. I respect the concerns raised by the AAUP, but stand by a decision that I believe was in the best interest of our community.”

Julia Schleck, a UNL faculty member and past president of the state’s AAUP group, said Lawton “should not have been removed from her classroom without due process in the first place.”

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said the AAUP “can say whatever they want.” Erdman, who was among those most critical of UNL, said the university has a “public relations problem” that could hurt its student recruitment. “The public is the one that decides where their children go.”

Schleck said many let UNL down. “Speaking as a citizen, I am appalled by the elected representatives who for partisan reasons pressured the university to break its own rules,” she said, “and speaking as a faculty member, I am deeply disappointed in our leadership for having capitulated to this pressure.”