Nebraska is one of the few states in which the public elects its university board of regents, and three of eight seats on the board are being contested in November.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents had an eventful 2017-18, including a fight for more state money and a two-person campus clash that received national publicity. That incident led to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln being placed on the American Association of University Professors’ censure list, which universities and colleges strive to avoid.
Only four states publicly elect the boards of their major universities. In most states, the governor or legislature appoint university board members.
The regents oversee campuses in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis.
In Nebraska, seats in four districts are on the ballot, but Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus has no opposition in northeast Nebraska’s District 3.
Barbara Weitz edged Regent Hal Daub in the primary election in May, making this race the one to watch on the Board of Regents.
Weitz received 43.8 percent of the votes, Daub 41.6 percent and attorney Ryan Wilkins 14.6 percent. Now it’s Weitz vs. Daub in the Nov. 6 general election.
Weitz expressed disappointment over the NU system’s modest state funding requests of 3 percent and 3.7 percent increases for 2019-21. Typically, those requests are about 6 percent.
“I think we are settling for less, and I think we have to fight harder for more state money,” said Weitz, a 70-year-old retired social work faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. NU must “stake a claim for more money, not less,” she said. “And I know it’s a hard fight.”
The state has made two midyear trims in the NU system’s allocation. And this year’s allocation is less than the state money NU received in 2016-17.
The AAUP censure came in large part, the organization said, because UNL failed to give lecturer Courtney Lawton a hearing before a faculty committee before terminating her at the end of the year. Lawton had brought national attention to UNL a year ago, when she berated a student who was recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA.
The AAUP said the university also crumbled under the criticism of some conservative senators.
Weitz said she wonders if the regents understand the consequences of an AAUP censure. It’s harder to recruit great professors when a school is on that list, she said.
Daub, a lawyer and longtime politician, called the university’s budgeting situation challenging.
He said Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Legislature have done good work considering that they have stagnant or declining revenues to distribute.
Daub, 77, said the regents did well to keep the NU tuition increase at 3.2 percent. The regents also have explained a difficult budgetary environment to the public and lawmakers, he said. This group of regents works well together, he said.
As for the AAUP censure, Daub said administrators used common sense and “made the right decisions.”
The censure “will have little if any bearing on the quality of education” and recruitment of strong faculty and students, he said.
Daub said free speech isn’t an excuse for unacceptable conduct.
Elizabeth O’Connor said NU needs to “tell its story a little bit more clearly” to gain the state allocations it desires. NU routinely points out its role in economic development in Nebraska, but O’Connor said that must be refined.
“We need to figure out what the state needs and how we get there and what our role in that is,” she said.
O’Connor, a 27-year-old attorney, said she believed that the incident involving Lawton and the conservative student was “more of a bullying issue.”
She agreed with the AAUP, saying discipline of Lawton should have been referred to a faculty-student panel.
O’Connor received about 72 percent of the vote in the two-person primary against Larry Bradley. They will meet again in the general election.
Bradley has declined to debate O’Connor, just as Weitz has chosen not to debate Daub. Bradley, a 54-year-old adjunct professor at UNO, said O’Connor is a trial attorney who is accustomed to debate.
“We’re actually educators,” Bradley said of himself and Weitz. The League of Women Voters’ forum “was not conducive for educators.”
He said NU’s state money problems could be remedied in part by tapping into the NU Foundation, which had total assets in 2016-17 of $2.3 billion. Although almost all of that money is directed toward specific projects, Bradley said some philanthropists would go along with helping fund general operations at NU.
Bradley referred to the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s elimination of baseball, men’s tennis and men’s golf as a sad situation driven by budget problems. The regents, he said, should have put those items on the agenda so they would have faced players, students, parents and fans.
He also said the university “panicked” when it didn’t give Lawton a hearing before a faculty committee. “Dr. Larry Bradley,” he said, referring to himself, “would be a person to try and bring both sides together.”
Rob Schafer of Beatrice is currently chairman of the board. Schafer said the administration and board “did a tremendous job” by changing a governor-recommended 4 percent cut in state funds to a legislative cut of 1 percent. “I think that was huge,” the attorney said.
Schafer, 50, received about 51 percent of the votes in his district, while Robert J. Prokop received 28 percent. A third candidate, Joshua Redwine, received about 21 percent and was bounced.
Schafer also praised NU President Hank Bounds’ “budget response teams,” which have found about $22 million in cuts and efficiencies.
As for the Lawton incident and the censure, he said, “You’re not going to leave everyone happy.” He called it “a personnel matter.”
Prokop, 83, served on the board for two terms more than 35 years ago and has been beaten out in attempts to get back on. He said he has been in and out of hospitals fighting an ulceration on his foot and has struggled to campaign and stay abreast of issues. He said lobbyists typically carry the ball for organizations seeking state money.
As for the AAUP censure, he said due process, or fair treatment of an individual, is a constitutional right. Without mentioning Lawton, he indicated that she deserved a committee hearing at UNL.
“Would you want someone to come down on you and make a ruling against you without due process?”