Education

Iowa universities apologize for 'egregious' free speech errors

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann: 'Your goal as universities is education, not indoctrination'

Third-year dental student Megha Puranam (right) speaks as she shares the stage Friday with fourth-year dental student Ja
Third-year dental student Megha Puranam (right) speaks as she shares the stage Friday with fourth-year dental student Jasmine Butler during a “Put DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) in DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery)” protest/walkout at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry in Iowa City. The dean of that school was in Des Moines Tuesday, apologizing for how the school handled a student’s complaint about a collegewide email on diversity. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Leaders from all three of Iowa’s public universities on Tuesday apologized to lawmakers for “egregious” incidents on their campuses that suppressed First Amendment rights and quelled free speech — largely affecting conservative students — and committed to taking corrective action.

“Since October, we’ve been reviewing what happened, how the process worked and didn’t work, and we’re working to implement steps that will prevent this from happening again,” University of Iowa College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen told the House Oversight Committee, while speaking about his decision in October to send a mass email to the college condemning a White House executive order barring certain types of diversity training.

Michael Brase, a conservative UI dental student, “replied all” to Johnsen’s message, asking questions and sparking a back and forth that prompted collegiate administrators to call him in for a disciplinary hearing for “unprofessional behavior.”

The letter summoning Brase warned he could face “dismissal,” prompting Brase to reach out to lawmakers — who intervened on his behalf. The disciplinary hearing was canceled.

Brase told the House committee last week he’s not alone in feeling conservative voices are squelched and held to different rules and standards on the UI campus.

University leaders told the committee Tuesday that faculty, staff and administrators have made free speech missteps.

“I would like to start by apologizing,” Dean Johnsen said. “Michael’s comments in front of the committee on Wednesday laid bare his concerns and fear that he felt regarding his educational future at our college, and, for that, I’m sorry.

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“We do not want any of our students to have an experience that leaves them feeling unsupported or fearful. … And, to be honest with the committee, we have heard from other students, faculty and staff in our college that we’ve failed them as well.

Although the November letter the college sent Brase suggested administrators could find “evidence warrants a dismissal recommendation,” Johnsen on Tuesday said Brase “was never threatened with expulsion or faced academic punishment.”

“That being said, I can see why he thought it was a possibility, and I’m disappointed that our language and our letter led him to fear otherwise, and that he felt concerned enough to reach out to legislators before he had a chance to meet with our regents,” he said.

Johnsen committed to never again use his voice “in an official capacity” to comment about a political issue. He vowed to revise and rebuild the Collegiate Academic and Professional Performance Committee structure involved in the disciplinary hearing. And he promised to review and redraft the letter sent to students facing professionalism questions.

Systemic issues

Several lawmakers indicated their concerns extend to larger systemic issues. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, noted the universities have lost several free speech lawsuits recently.

“This isn’t a second chance,” he said. “This is a repeated, decadelong and possibly and probably longer feeling of hundreds of students, if not thousands, that there are two different sets of rules.

“So as much as I greatly appreciate, dean, your efforts and look forward to seeing them implemented, I expect the entire university, all of you, to come up with a systemic policy.”

Kaufmann called repeated court losses at the expense of taxpayers “unacceptable.”

“Your goal as universities is education, not indoctrination,” he said. “And so I would just ask that you report back to us, not just about this specific incident. … But that you have a greater plan on how to make decades worth of students not feel the same way that Michael did.”

And Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, who’s introduced legislation to eliminate tenure for faculty across Iowa’s public universities, tied together the issues of free speech and academic protections — suggesting abuse of the former might justify elimination of the latter.

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“I wonder if the assault on free speech by some university professors is not related to the belief that they’re Teflon-coated and indestructible and, therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure,” Holt said.

Iowa State testimony

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen, for her campus, apologized to the committee for a “disappointing, egregious” incident in the fall in which an English professor distributed a syllabus barring students from choosing “any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e.: no arguments against same-sex marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.)”

Wintersteen said the professor was reprimanded and educated, and she promptly apologized to her class. ISU placed a letter in the professor’s personnel file, and the campus ramped up First Amendment and free speech training for faculty.

Uni testimony

And University of Northern Iowa officials reported making campus improvements after an anti-abortion group in the fall was denied student organization status until President Mark Nook intervened and allowed it. Student government leaders initially rejected the anti-abortion group’s application, calling the organization a “hate group.”

Rep. Holly Brink, R-Oskaloosa, took specific aim at that incident Tuesday, slamming a campus climate that would allow for such suppression of student voices.

“The president did step in,” Brink said. “But I think it went absolutely too far. … Is there a reason you didn’t step in (sooner)?”

The other side

On the other end of the spectrum, dozens of dental students on Friday protested the lack of repercussions for Brase and a climate that’s unwelcoming to underrepresented minorities. Lawmakers demanded those students be held accountable for walking out on patients — as some have alleged they did.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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