IOWA LEGISLATURE

Republican lawmakers slam University of Iowa for 'intimidation of free speech'

'This is not acceptable from any political viewpoint'

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, speaks Oct. 20, 2020, during a visit with former Gov. Terry Branstad in Solon. (And
State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, speaks Oct. 20, 2020, during a visit with former Gov. Terry Branstad in Solon. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa and its College of Dentistry are being squeezed by critics on both sides over their handling of a White House executive order in the fall barring certain types of diversity training and, more broadly, over their handling of diversity and free speech.

“When the (College of Dentistry) and the university were put to the test, and their core values of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ were challenged, they failed to uphold these values,” according to a petition being circulated by an “Action UIowa Task Force” of students planning a Friday walkout at the College of Dentistry.

That protest is set to begin at noon at the Old Capitol and involve a march to the college.

“I am having a very hard time finding the words to encourage people of color to come here, especially after the experiences I have had, and the experiences my friends of marginalized identities have had,” said UI dental student Megha Puranam, among those organizing the protest and petition, which had about 400 signatures midday Thursday.

On the day those students announced their demands, UI dental student Michael Brase testified before an Iowa House oversight committee in Des Moines about fallout from his decision in October to “reply all” to a dental college email.

The message from the dental college condemned a White House order issued under the Trump administration that barred federal fund recipients like the UI from promoting diversity training involving race or sex “stereotyping” or “scapegoating.”

Brase told lawmakers Wednesday he responded to that college email — so that all other recipients could see — with questions about whether the university’s condemnation means the college supported using federal money to promote sex and race stereotyping and scapegoating.

“It was very evident that they were using their position as administrators in the college to make this political statement,” Brase testified. “As a student, as a conservative student, I took issue with that. I felt threatened to see that my administrators at a public university, who should be neutral regarding political standings and statements on their positions, were making this kind of a statement.”

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Brase testified his email reply prompted a “long” back and forth among students. And he eventually was called to a disciplinary hearing “for professional misconduct,” with threat of dismissal. He was told he couldn’t have an attorney or record the conversation, Brase testified.

But before that hearing could occur, Brase contacted Republican lawmakers, who reached out to UI administrators, who then canceled the disciplinary meeting.

During Wednesday’s oversight hearing, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he found nothing unprofessional about Brase’s comments in the email thread. Kaufmann used an expletive to describe the university’s response to Brase and to the student outcry fueling Friday’s protest.

“Because they weren’t successful in silencing you, because they weren’t successful in punishing you for expressing your opinion, they’re going to use their First Amendment rights to trample on yours?” Kauffman said. “Excuse my French, but that’s total (expletive.) I’m going to demand that if there are deans supporting (the protest), I want that on the record. And anybody that supports using their First Amendment rights to trample on yours is a raging hypocrite.”

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said he was the lawmaker who got involved. And he berated the UI’s and dental college’s handling of the situation — calling it suppression of conservative ideology and speech.

“This should concern everybody, because we’re talking about just basic free speech,” Holt said. “If they’re going to send out an email blast condemning the president’s executive order, and then, because somebody disagrees with them, they’re going to bring him up unprofessional behavior, that doesn’t make any sense.

“It shouldn’t make any sense to any of us. Because the pendulum can swing the other way folks. And this is not acceptable from any political viewpoint.”

To a question from Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, about what Brase wants the legislative body to do, he said, “I want there to be accountability.”

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“Legal accountability,” he said. “If administrators choose to railroad students who disagree with them, if they use their administrative power and put their own political opinions into their work in an inappropriate manner, there needs to be consequences for that.”

In November, Board of Regents President Mike Richards took a sharp tone against the public universities’ collective actions around First Amendment issues, saying, “This is not who we are, and it is not right.”

Richards created a regents committee to review its free speech policy and evaluate each campus’ compliance.

Weeks after the controversial email exchange, dental college Dean David Johnsen sent another mass email acknowledging issues that had been raised “are painful and personal, and many people shared their perspectives.” He said collegiate administrators had met with faculty, staff, students and residents to formulate plans “to move forward with the goals of a better future and better health for all.”

But while some lawmakers have said the college hasn’t done enough to support free speech and the rights of conservative voices on campus, those students in the “Action UIowa Task Force” say the college has done too little to actualize their promise to prioritize diversity.

That group issued demands that include enacting “stricter professionalism guidelines,” increasing social media student conduct guidance, creating a dental college diversity officer and task force and revising admissions processes.

“The majority of the revenue for the College of Dentistry is generated from patients of low socioeconomic status, patients with non-white identities, or patients that speak English as a second language,” according to the group. “The current admissions process does not reflect this, and it must change.”

Brase mentioned the protest in his testimony — and noted while conservative students are afraid to speak up, those on the other side “calling us racists, calling us white supremacists” have no fear of administrative blowback.

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“I think that is a testament to the environment and the culture that the College of Dentistry has created, when anybody who’s conservative has to be afraid to voice their opinions and anybody who is on the liberal side of the fence can speak it out in broad daylight,” Brase said.

Rep. Kaufmann read aloud an email he said was forwarded to him about the protest. The email he read, from a dental student to others, slammed the regents for stopping administrators from taking “corrective action” against Brase.

“Many students and faculty were hurt by this and are demanding the state take action to make reform,” Kaufmann quoted from the email, adding his own comment. “That’s not going to happen.”

Holt said he’s eager to hear what UI administrators have to say — they’re scheduled to testify next week before the oversight committee.

“I don’t care if it’s left or right, there’s no excuse for intimidation of free speech.”

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

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