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News Brief

Feb. 14, 2024 |  By: AP

Nebraska GOP bills target college professor tenure and diversity, equity and inclusion

college room

Scores of people turned out Tuesday to testify well into the night on bills being considered by Nebraska lawmakers that target diversity initiatives and higher education programs, mirroring proposals by Republicans across the country.

The bills before the state Legislature’s Education Committee included one that would ban diversity, equity and inclusion — known as DEI — programs and offices at state colleges and universities. Another would eliminate tenure for college professors. Similar bills have been introduced in Republican-led legislatures across the country as the 2024 election year heats up.

Sen. Dave Murman, a south-central Nebraska farmer who is chair of the Education Committee, introduced the anti-DEI bill that has garnered 13 cosigners who are among the most conservative in the body. Already this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed about 50 bills in 20 states that would restrict DEI initiatives or require their public disclosure.

Murman characterized DEI programs as “a threat to academic freedom” by elevating diversity over meritocracy.

“Taxpayer-funded universities shouldn’t be used for activism and social change,” he said.

The 12 people who testified in support of the bill echoed that sentiment, using phrases like “Marxist philosophy,” a “you-owe-me mentality” and “promoting victimhood.”

Jess Lammers, of Holdrege, was more blunt, saying DEI is “being inflicted on us by liberals.”

“It excludes white people,” he said.

Opponents of the bill vastly outnumbered supporters, and dozens took to the mic to encourage lawmakers to reject it. Among them were several young people of color who grew up in the state or Nebraska college students who told lawmakers of the discrimination they’ve faced.

That included Mia Perales, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering student who graduated at the top of her high school class.

“As a Latino woman in engineering, I have been overlooked by my peers countless times,” she said.

Ricki Barber, the secretary of the Lincoln chapter of the NAACP, addressed lawmakers supporting the bill — several of whom are UNL graduates and Nebraska college football fans.

“The transfer portal is a real thing,” Barber said. “And our Black athletes are watching what happens here.”

Sen. Loren Lippincott defended his bill seeking to eliminate the tenure system as an idea that’s gaining traction in other state legislatures. He noted that similar measures have been or are actively being sought in at least half a dozen other states, including Iowa, Florida, North Dakota and Texas.

Academic tenure is given to high-performing professors — usually those who are long-serving and have a catalog of published academic material. Tenure provides a raft of benefits, including higher pay and heightened job security. Advocates say tenure is crucial to protecting academic freedom.

Critics have long held that tenure protects poorly performing professors. Many conservatives have come to see tenure as a system that protects professors who espouse left-leaning ideals.

“A lot of these horses were pulling their weight in their youth,” Lippincott said. “But then those horses end up staying in the barn and just eating hay.”

Lippincott’s bill would create a system that would set up annual performance evaluations of all faculty, along with a set of minimum standards of faculty performance and disciplinary actions. It would also set up employment agreements that would lay out grounds to fire faculty, including for just cause or for financial reasons and program discontinuance by the school.

Opponents warned that eliminating tenure would make the already competitive nature of attracting top candidates for faculty jobs at Nebraska colleges and universities even more difficult.

“Eliminating tenure would tie both behind our back right at a time we’re trying to recruit and retain faculty,” said Chris Kabourek, interim president of the University of Nebraska. “No other Big Ten university is without tenure. We can’t afford not to offer it.”

It’s too early to know whether either measure has the votes to advance to the full Legislature.