courtney lawton.jpg (copy)

Lecturer Courtney Lawton was removed from the classroom after an incident with a conservative student in August 2017.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s effort to get off a national academic blacklist might involve apologizing to or compensating former graduate student-instructor Courtney Lawton.

Lawton lost her teaching post at UNL in 2017-18 after she was accused of harassing a conservative student who was recruiting for the group Turning Point USA.

An American Association of University Professors representative, Hans-Joerg Tiede, said Tuesday in an email that one option being discussed to get UNL off the censure list “is redress, which may or may not be in the form of remuneration.”

But Tiede clarified that statement Wednesday by saying, “Redress is not the same as remuneration. In some cases, redress has been in the form of an apology or awarding of emeritus status.” The organization doesn’t, “as a matter of policy, require remuneration in order to lift censure and doesn’t negotiate any remuneration” for the faculty member involved.

Kevin Hanrahan, UNL’s Faculty Senate leader, said conversations with the AAUP have indicated that the group may expect restitution or a “gesture” of some kind from the university to Lawton.

“I’m not sure exactly what they have in mind,” he said.

Most important to the AAUP appears to be changing or clarifying university bylaws so there is no confusion about how to handle situations involving challenges to academic freedom.

Academic freedom is generally the freedom to explore ideas and seek truth in the classroom, the freedom to conduct research and publish results, and the right to address social, political and economic topics.

A UNL committee led by Hanrahan seeks to get UNL removed from the AAUP’s censure list. UNL was put on the list last year after its handling of Lawton in 2017 and 2018. Her campus conflict received national attention.

In August 2017, Lawton flipped off and mocked an undergraduate student who sat at an outdoor table recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA.

The AAUP advocates academic freedom, tenure rights and other matters important to university professors. The censure list currently names 58 institutions across the country, including the University of Missouri and Clarkson College of Omaha. Clarkson is on the list because of the 1992 removal of several faculty members.

UNL was put on the list during a national conference of the AAUP in June 2018.

The AAUP reasoned that Lawton had not been given a proper campus hearing, or due process, and that UNL administrators crumbled under pressure from some state senators.

After Lawton belittled the student, conservatives nationwide saw video taken by the student, Kaitlyn Mullen, and expressed outrage against Lawton. Some conservatives used the incident as evidence that public higher education is a path to liberal indoctrination.

UNL initially said it would remove Lawton from her classroom duties in 2017 because of threats against her. Eventually, after facing political pressure, UNL appeared to remove her from the classroom, with pay, as a disciplinary measure.

Lawton, who completed her doctorate in English at UNL last year, wasn’t allowed to teach the next semester, although she was paid for doing some form of work. The AAUP called the measures taken by UNL “equivalent to a summary dismissal,” an assertion denied by UNL administrators.

Lawton wasn’t invited back to teach at UNL last year. It’s not clear what she is doing now. She didn’t respond to messages.

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Julia Schleck, an AAUP representative at UNL, said the national AAUP wants procedures to be clear, seeks an improvement in the climate for academic freedom at the university, and hopes to see “some effort to redress the harm done to the faculty member whose academic freedom was violated.”

Schleck, who is on the committee with Hanrahan, said the AAUP wants “a good-faith effort by the administration to reach out to the faculty member and attempt a resolution that would be satisfactory to both sides.”

UNL spokeswoman Deb Fiddelke said the administration is involved in “constructive dialogue” in the process.

Hanrahan said faculty members have mixed views of Lawton. “I think there are some who do feel sorry for her, and there are those who don’t feel sorry for her.”

Hanrahan said his committee’s primary goal is to develop clear, sound procedures for academic freedom at UNL.

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