The choice to become the next president of the University of Nebraska spoke about his life growing up in a family of educators, his love of learning and his experiences running the U.S. Naval Academy at his introduction to UNL faculty and staff Tuesday.
But coloring the meeting between faculty leaders and Ted Carter, the Board of Regents’ pick to lead the university system, were separate administrative actions to remove instructors.
At UNL, that incident occurred two years ago when graduate student lecturer Courtney Lawton was removed from her teaching duties after she was filmed protesting Turning Point USA, a student organization with ties to the Trump administration.
Following an investigation, the American Association of University Professors concluded NU’s former president, Hank Bounds, and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green folded under political pressure from conservative state lawmakers when they removed Lawton from her teaching position.
The national faculty group later placed UNL on its list of universities determined to have violated higher education’s loftiest principles: academic freedom and due process.
More than 1,200 miles away, Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the Naval Academy, was stripped of classroom duties following reports from students he had discriminated against them on political grounds, discussed sexual matters in class, and had emailed photos of himself partially clothed to students.
Fleming was later reinstated after the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board determined there was a lack of evidence to support the claims and ordered the Naval Academy to pay him seven months of lost salary.
The longtime civilian faculty member placed blame for his removal on Carter, whom he said does not understand higher education and was a poor choice to lead a public university system such as NU.
Carter preempted any questions about Fleming on Tuesday, telling faculty at UNL to “do their homework” on the situation, and calling Fleming’s allegations against him “accurately and factually not true.”
“I believe in positive leadership, I’ve never demeaned or said anything bad about a single person in public, nor would I ever do that,” Carter said. “I believe in that type of dignity and respect, and in turn, I’ve expected that it would come back to me.”
While NU faculty did not directly ask Carter to address the matter further — and Carter said he wouldn’t go into more details with an appeal in the Fleming case pending — many of the questions asked Tuesday were informed by the issues raised by both incidents.
Carter spoke in support of the guidelines for academic freedom and expression outlined by the AAUP, telling UNL’s sustainability coordinator, Prabs Shrestha, those principles empowered the university “to seek the truth and be able to speak to it without any fear of repercussion” on issues such as climate change.
UNL Faculty Senate President Kevin Hanrahan said action taken against Lawton, particularly after pressure from outside influences, has created the feeling among faculty that they are not free to pursue questions or ideas some might see as objectionable.
“There is a feeling in the state of Nebraska, particularly I would say among politicians in this state, that there needs to be control over that expression, particularly when it is disagreeable to people’s ideas,” Hanrahan said. “There’s a sense that you’re not totally free here to explore things because of that.”
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Carter said the university needs “to protect our students and our faculty to have the right to have a thought in the search for the truth.”
He said he supports the efforts of the university to create clearer guidelines for disciplinary hearings that afford more due process, and said he believes UNL needs to find a way to get rid of the “nasty mark” left by the AAUP censure.
“We have to find a way to remove that,” he said. “I don’t think I want to have that here, because we want to attract faculty that have this feeling that I can say what I want in the classroom” within the limits outlined by the AAUP that discussion has to relate to the topic at hand.
Other questions from faculty put to Carter, a career naval officer who does not have a Ph.D., probed his views on leading and maintaining the independence of a public university system.
Carter, responding to a question from Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English, said he has rejected donations if those individuals sought to further their own ends through their money.
The priority candidate, answering a question from physics professor Ken Bloom, said he doesn’t see himself as a president who only looks “up and out,” concerned mostly with the external parts of the job — such as the Legislature and donor relations — but as someone concerned with the workings of the system as a whole.
While he wants to be seen on campus, he added, there are limitations.
In an afternoon forum with students, Carter said it is not his intention to be the chancellor of UNL or any of the system’s other campuses. Instead, he said it’s his job to work with campus leaders to further the goals of the broader NU system.
“I believe in empowerment, that’s my leadership style,” he said. “I’m not a micromanager, I never have been; I don’t believe I’m smart enough to do everybody’s job.”
* Speaking in the atrium of the College of Business at Hawks Hall on Tuesday afternoon, Carter said he was impressed by how many students wanted to talk to him about climate change.
“This isn’t just something I care about, it’s something you care about,” he said. If ultimately hired by regents later this month, Carter said he would work with those students to turn their ideas and concerns into action.
When asked about whether he would push for divestment from fossil fuels, however, Carter said “it’s really hard to make that shift.”
* Carter also said NU’s campuses could “probably use more” mental health resources for students. While in the Navy, he helped draft guidelines for how the military tried to reduce suicide among service members.
Mental health resources are part of Carter’s customer-based approach to serving students, he said.
“This is something that is common to your generation,” he told students. “There is less stigma to seek help, which is a great thing.”