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Ryan Johnson, Published January 29 2013

NDSU faculty rally after freezing of sex-ed program funds

FARGO – It wasn’t meant to be a protest, but organizers of a Tuesday afternoon march across the North Dakota State University campus said they hoped the event would stress the importance of academic freedom in the wake of administrators’ Jan. 14 decision to freeze a $1.2 million federal grant over a question of state law.

History assistant professor Angela Smith said she wanted to be involved to show her “solidarity” with the cause. About 100 faculty members, students and academics from other regional universities were there for the five-minute walk from the Memorial Union to Old Main, home to administrative offices.

Rachel Olerud, a self-described “concerned citizen,” said she wanted to get involved because it seemed the best thing she could do to show her support for continuing the grant, which was for a sexual-education program.

The topic of academic freedom was at the heart of a Monday open forum that drew more than 100 faculty members to hear from President Dean Bresciani and ask questions about the 1979 North Dakota law forbidding using government funding for “family planning” services said to be at the heart of the decision to freeze the funding. University officials cited the law as reason to freeze funding for the grant.

The two NDSU researchers awarded the grant planned to partner with Planned Parenthood to offer a voluntary, comprehensive sex-ed program to Fargo-area teens.

English professor Bruce Maylath said the march was a necessity after Monday’s forum because faculty from several departments wanted to “reach out to the public.”

“I’ve taught at many colleges and universities, and I have never seen a faculty so united,” he said. “And it’s not just the faculty, it’s the students.”

Maylath said academic freedom has been an issue since the first universities were founded. Still, he said, it’s important to remind the new generations what’s at stake.

“This is an invitation to the public, and we’re inviting administrators to join us in this educational mission to help the public understand the importance of academic freedom,” he said.

Construction management assistant professor Don Darshi De Saram said he believes the grant was frozen after political pressure from “dogmatic” people who were concerned over the funding’s partnership with Planned Parenthood. But he said the grant, if allowed to move forward, is “exactly anti-abortion” because it would educate teens on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies if they choose to become sexually active.

“What does this grant do? It’s going to stop the root cause of such abortions – unwanted, unmanageable pregnancies,” he said.

On the front steps of Old Main, mathematics associate professor Sean Sather-Wagstaff read several policies that discuss the importance of academic freedom, including Section 325 of NDSU’s Policy Manual that says “a free and open academic community which takes no ideological or policy position itself” is essential to the university’s primary mission.

“These affect every single one of us in our ability to recruit, retain and promote the best scholars,” Sather-Wagstaff said.

Provost J. Bruce Rafert also was on hand to watch and said he thought it was a “very positive gathering” stressing a topic administrators take seriously.

“I feel that academic freedom is cherished at NDSU,” he said.

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

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