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Jane Ahlin, Published January 19 2013

Ahlin: Looks like right-wingers rolled NDSU’s president

What happens when two hardworking young North Dakota State University faculty members apply for a competitive federal grant, researching and writing the hundred or so pages of grant-required information, jumping through the university hoops of review and obtaining approval, and – as said by NDSU President Dean Bresciani in a radio segment on Scott Hennen’s talk show – even passing the scrutiny of the North Dakota Legislature’s own Legislative Council as to the grant’s legal status? In the case of Molly Secor and Brandy Randall, hard work and painstaking detail paid off: They got the grant. During the ensuing weeks, contracts were signed, people were hired, and grant work began.

A few months into the grant, the two heard rumblings that a few right-wing North Dakota legislators didn’t like their grant for ideological reasons and intended to make trouble for NDSU over it. The grant winners weren’t sure what to think.

(Pause here to sigh.)

Sad to say, everybody now knows that they should have thought the worst. The president of NDSU went on talk radio and threw them and their grant under the proverbial bus.

Before getting into what prompted the NDSU debacle, let’s talk facts.

1) Secor and Randall acquired a three-year federal grant for $1.2 million to provide scientifically sound sex education programming for at-risk youth in our community, youth who are more likely than the general population to contract sexually transmitted infections and to become pregnant or to impregnate.

2) For the programming, the two chose to partner with Planned Parenthood because the organization is almost alone in having a proven record for programs that reduce risky behavior in young people.

3) The program is voluntary and along with sex education, teaches life skills to 15- to 19-year-olds identified through community-based organizations that work with youths.

4) Parental consent is required.

5) Abstinence is taught along with medically accurate information about human reproduction and disease transmission.

Important, too, are the things the grant does not involve. It does not involve family planning or abortion, and it has nothing to do with North Dakota high schools.

Back to the political intrigue. President Bresciani’s remarks on the Scott Hennen show were telling. He made clear that the only objection any legislator had to the grant was the inclusion of Planned Parenthood for programming. He also said he was comfortable freezing the grant funds because “it’s not respecting the intent of our Legislature.”

He seemed unsure of any real legal reason the grant already in progress should be pulled except that he didn’t want to offend the Legislature. That the grant was well under way and a substantial amount of money had been spent wasn’t mentioned.

Put another way, Bresciani was frightened the ideological powers that be would gleefully inflict monetary pain on NDSU using the grant as an excuse. (Maybe the threat was voiced.) What else could explain his cavalier attitude toward his own faculty, as if their winning this impressive grant was inconsequential? What else could explain that when talking to Hennen the words “academic freedom” did not cross his lips?

NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel, reached by Forum reporter Ryan Johnson after Bresciani spoke on Hennen’s show, had no information. She told Johnson, “Right now, it’s all just questions.”

I agree with her. But the questions aren’t about the legality of a grant; they’re about university leadership and some shamefully extreme legislators.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.