University of Iowa debates academic freedom for students, faculty, and administrators

A University of Iowa dean apologized to a student for the way he was treated in the fall during a campus debate on the old President Trump’s decree prohibiting federal funding of anti-bacterial or diversity programs with “divisive concepts”.

The Trump order was blocked by a federal judge and revoked by President Biden.

But the way some Iowa administrators responded to the order continues to reverberate across campus.

The controversy began when the dental school’s management and faculty members sent a mass email to students and faculty in October condemning the decree.

The student, Michael Brase, responded to the email (and everyone who received it).

“By condemning Decree 13950, the [College of Dentistry] support the use of federal funds to promote trainings that include racial / gender stereotyping and / or race / gender as a scapegoat? “he wrote. And he asked why the college shouldn’t take it. decree guidelines and “continue to provide training that promotes respect and equality for all races / genders.”

A few weeks later, Brase received an email from the college. “Your unprofessional behavior involving the follow-up emails that you sent on a public platform after you were offered a choice of ‘other ways to keep the conversation going,’ the email said.

Brase has been ordered to attend a student conduct hearing.

But the university backed down after Brase threatened to go to state lawmakers with the story. No hearing took place. The threat of a hearing lasted only two days.

In a legislative hearing this week, David Johnsen, the dean of the school, apologized.

“We don’t want any of our students to go through an experience that leaves them unsupported or fearful. Yet we have failed Michael in that regard. And to be honest with the committee, we’ve heard from other students, professors. and staff at our college that we’ve failed them as well. As a college, we must and will do better to support Michael and all of the students, faculty and staff, ”Johnsen said (in remarks prepared for delivery ).

Johnsen noted that Brase “was never threatened with deportation, and he never faced academic punishment … That being said, I can see why he thought it was a possibility and I’m disappointed that our language in the letter caused him to fear otherwise and that he felt concerned enough to contact lawmakers before he had a chance to meet our associate dean for students. “

But Johnsen, who signed the original email regarding the decree, went beyond apologizing to the student.

“Our first step is that in the future I will not use my voice, in an official capacity, to comment on current political issues,” he said. “While I will continue to nurture opportunities that encourage debate and dialogue within the college, I have found that expressing an opinion, as a dean, on a political topic can cool speech rather than foster discussion. freedom of expression.”

Republican lawmakers weren’t impressed with Johnsen’s appearance (although they did agree with the apology).

One of those who spoke at the hearing was Representative Bobby Kaufmann, who was president of College Republicans when he was a student in Iowa. He did not respond to a request for comment.

But according to The Monks Register, he said, “I can speak to direct testimony from my members who think, rightly or wrongly… that there is a different set of rules – one for conservative groups and one for liberal groups. and probably even longer – the feeling of hundreds of students, if not thousands, that there are two different sets of rules. “

Brase, in an email to Within higher education, said, “I understand that he acknowledged that the school’s actions against me did not protect freedom of expression and that school administrators should not use their positions to make political statements to their organizations. Only time will tell if these were simply words spoken while under scrutiny, or if they reflected a genuine desire to foster an environment that encourages the free expression of a variety of opinions. I like to see the good in people, so I have high hopes. “

A subtext of the debate in Iowa is a bill to eliminate tenure at state universities. Similar bills have failed in the past, but the debate over Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to the bill.

“In the real world, if you get it wrong, and you get that wrong, you get fired,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler. The Cedar Rapids Gazette. “You are canned. It will be difficult to find another job.

What the experts say

Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights in Education Foundation’s Advocacy Program, linked Iowa’s treatment of Brase to the dean’s rulings on a public policy issue.

“When university leaders open campus discussions on political issues such as the Executive Order, which FIRE has criticized because of its potential threat to chill academic discourse, they should not take steps to limit that discussion,” Steinbaugh said. “Unfortunately, we have too often seen ‘professionalism’ used as a pretext to investigate, discipline or cool student discourse on matters of public interest. Even if a student is not ultimately punished, summoning a student to a disciplinary hearing can have lingering consequences… It also sends the message to students that administrators can end their careers if they participate in discussions. on public policies.

The American Association of University Teachers declined to comment because its standards relate to faculty members, not administrators.

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