Ten months after the incident, a brief conflict between a liberal graduate student and a conservative undergraduate still shadows the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A national professors organization Saturday put UNL administrators on its censure list, a formal rebuke for the way they handled discipline against the liberal graduate student-lecturer. The American Association of University Professors unanimously censured UNL at its meeting in Washington.
The Aug. 25 incident, in which Courtney Lawton belittled and insulted undergraduate Kaitlyn Mullen, has become a prized moment for conservatives who want to brand American universities as cauldrons of liberalism.
Mullen, who was outdoors recruiting that day for the conservative Turning Point USA, took video on her phone of Lawton’s protest, and it became national news.
As the fallout continued, UNL administrators found themselves squeezed between conservative politicians who sought harsh punishment for Lawton and professors who wanted free speech defended.
“The University of Nebraska can’t win either way,” Richard Vedder, an Ohio University emeritus professor who studies higher education, said earlier this month.
UNL first removed Lawton from the classroom in which she taught, supposedly as a safety precaution. The university and Lawton had received disturbing messages. Ultimately, though, UNL said Lawton wouldn’t teach in the future. The AAUP said this amounted to a dismissal without a proper hearing.
The AAUP said UNL also wilted under the pressure of three Nebraska state senators and other angry conservatives.
UNL argued that the AAUP misinterpreted the university’s response. Lawton was allowed to do research to the end of the 2017-18 school year, UNL said, and she received a chance to have a hearing. Lawton rejected that chance, UNL said.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said Saturday that he was disappointed by the AAUP’s decision.
“We are proud to provide a world- class education and to be one of the fastest growing research institutions, thanks in large part to our tremendous faculty,” Green said.
Lawton said in an email: “I would have preferred that NU’s administration respected academic freedom and due process in handling my case in the first place, rather than getting censured after the fact.”
UNL now is one of 56 institutions on the AAUP’s censure list. A censure means the AAUP believes a college’s leaders have failed to live up to principles of tenure and academic freedom formed in 1940 by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Bob Haller, a retired UNL English professor, said the 1940 rules aren’t subjective and are politically neutral. The policies are widely accepted by many organizations of higher education, “and this is where the force comes” with AAUP declarations, said Haller, a longtime AAUP member.
The University of Missouri went on the list two years ago for dismissing a faculty member who called for “muscle” to remove a journalist from a protest.
Vedder said he didn’t know if the UNL case rose to the level of censure. “I think this is one of the flimsier censures I’ve heard of,” he said.
But Haller said it’s a serious matter when political pressure compels a school to compromise established principles.
The Nebraska State College System went on the censure list in the 1960s when Wayne State College rescinded the contract of a new professor. The college had learned that the professor, Henry St. Onge, let a radical California radio commentator speak from his porch when St. Onge was a doctoral student in Ohio.
The radio commentator had clashed with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was notorious for its pursuit of communists in the 1950s.
The state colleges changed their policies in 1989, and the AAUP removed them from the censure list. The state college system also tried to patch it up with St. Onge, who was retired and living in Maine.
The college trustees offered him $3,000 to come for a talk on academic freedom. The professor turned them down.