Controversy over the treatment of a conservative University of Nebraska-Lincoln student has surfaced once again, this time in Gov. Pete Ricketts’ re-election campaign.
The Republican governor’s campaign last month sent a survey to donors asking, in part, how troubled they were by the bullying of conservative students.
The survey question reflects how divisive one incident at UNL has been and suggests it could have political implications. It has given conservatives a situation to seize upon as evidence of liberal bias at the university.
The survey question has made some faculty members in the NU system cringe.
“In the current climate, it doesn’t surprise me that this kind of thing is occurring,” said William Wozniak, a past president of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Faculty Senate. “But it’s just another indication of how — how rotten — the atmosphere has gotten with regard to pitching grenades at the other side.”
Jessica Flanagain, Ricketts’ campaign manager, said this week that the survey went out to Republican donors. She didn’t know how many received it.
Five of the seven involved questions about budget, efficiency and taxation. Another question was about whether the media give “fair and accurate coverage to Republican” officials.
The one involving the university states: “Recently, employees of our taxpayer funded state university system have been caught bullying students for their conservative beliefs. … how concerned are you about this?”
The options range from “5 Very Concerned” to “1 Not at all.”
Flanagain, who said she helped devise the survey, declined to comment on why the word “students” was used when only Kaitlyn Mullen was belittled in the Aug. 25 incident.
“It’s campaign fundraising,” she said. “The survey included current issues of significance, and just getting a sense of where our supporters are on some of these issues.”
The incident involved a sophomore who sat outdoors at a table at UNL, recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA.
A graduate student/lecturer flipped the student the bird and called her a neo-fascist, among other things. The lecturer was initially given a written reprimand. But after some state senators got involved, alleging that the NU system might be hostile toward conservatives, the lecturer was informed her contract wouldn’t be renewed at the end of the school year.
In response, 315 NU faculty members and retired professors have signed a letter. It protests, in part, that the lecturer, Courtney Lawton, didn’t receive due process and intimates that UNL buckled under political pressure.
Wozniak, a psychology professor, said the question about the university assumes that conservative students are being intimidated.
Wozniak said he is liberal, but in the classroom he works to be objective, present multiple sides of an issue and isn’t out to change students’ opinions.
Richard Duncan, an NU law professor, didn’t object to the survey question and found it fair. Duncan, a conservative, called UNL “a good place” that values diverse points of view.
Solid work is rewarded, regardless of viewpoint, he said. “And I’m outspoken,” said Duncan, who has been on the Lincoln campus for 39 years. “I’ve never been afraid to speak out on issues. I’ve never felt that I would be punished.”
Some students might keep their conservative views to themselves, he said, but that would mainly be because they don’t want to be judged by their classmates.
“I have not felt silenced at the University of Nebraska.”
Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Ricketts should have more important work “than poking around in small matters” in the NU system.
Landow said a graduate student had a dustup with an undergraduate student “and it turns into the world coming to an end” and conservative politicians “using it for their own purposes.”
Landow, a Democrat, was former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey’s chief of staff from 2001 through 2008.
“The university has been around for the better part of 150 years, and it’s done just fine without political meddling from either side,” he said.
NU Regents Chairman Bob Whitehouse of Papillion said he would have preferred a question about how well the university is doing its job.
“That would have been fair,” said Whitehouse, a Republican.
As for the incident in question, Whitehouse said: “Gawd, this is a story that just won’t go away.”
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