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Ryan Johnson, Published January 28 2013

NDSU faculty discuss academic freedom in light of sex-ed grant flap

FARGO – North Dakota State University officials had an “alternative option” when they were alerted to a potential legal question that led them to freeze a $1.2 million federal grant for a new sexual education program, a former University of North Dakota administrator said Monday.

The comments came at an open forum on academic freedom organized by the faculty senate. UND educational leadership professor Dan Rice, the former dean of UND’s College of Education and Human Development, facilitated the discussion and asked his own questions.

Rice said he understands taking a “very cautious” approach when a research project may be in limbo. Still, he said NDSU had options other than simply freezing the money when the question of whether it conflicted with a 1979 North Dakota law was raised earlier this month.

“I’m just saying that there’s an argument on the other side that another equally prudent but maybe a slightly more risky approach would be to allow a properly vetted grant to proceed uninterrupted until you, in fact, have a definitive legal opinion about whether it should be stopped,” he said.

President Dean Bresciani helped kick off the forum, which drew more than 100 faculty members, by telling the audience that he was proud of the “vigor and the passion” shown by faculty in recent weeks. Bresciani was accused of “bowing to political pressure” by the president of the faculty senate for freezing the grant, which would have helped launch a sex-ed program involving Planned Parenthood this month.

Several faculty members asked about the appearance of “political pressure” behind the Jan. 14 decision to freeze the funding months after the grant was awarded to assistant professors Brandy Randall and Molly Secor-Turner. A complicating factor, many said, was that many people first heard of the decision when Bresciani discussed the issue Jan. 15 during an appearance on a conservative talk radio show.

Bresciani said that “understandable misperception” may come down to the belief he ordered the grant frozen – a decision he said was made by other administrators. “The president of the university has, to the best of my knowledge, no responsibility for grants and contract administration,” he said.

NDSU General Counsel Chris Wilson said officials had to take seriously the law, which forbids using any government funding for “family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers or encourages abortion,” because it is a criminal statute. University officials say it isn’t clear if a 1981 appeals court ruling struck down the entire law or if parts of it remain.

Wilson said NDSU administrators had to “err on the side of caution,” with Vice President for Research, Creative Activities and Technology Transfer Phil Boudjouk ordering the grant’s hold on the afternoon of Jan. 14, just hours after the potential legal problem came up.

Rice said that sends a “chilling message,” and the legal issues aren’t “the end of the story.”

“That’s why we have presidents, vice presidents, deans,” he said. “It’s their job to take the advice that the legal counsel gives them, but then make a decision considering all of the factors that may be involved.”

After the event, faculty senate President Tom Stone Carlson told The Forum that he hoped Monday’s meeting would give faculty a chance to tell administrators why they’re still concerned about the decision – and why it’s as much a question of academic freedom as state law.

“I’m not sure that that happened,” he said. “My sense was it was an opportunity and a start for that.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587