University of Nebraska regents drew a line in the sand Thursday against what they called attempts by state lawmakers to usurp their policy-setting responsibilities.
In a statement read by Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, the board reiterated its duties as enshrined in the Nebraska Constitution and upheld through the 1977 Nebraska Supreme Court case Board of Regents v. Exon.
Efforts by lawmakers to dictate how NU should respond to issues surrounding free speech and the First Amendment infringed upon the university’s independence under state law, Pillen said.
“Policy development, especially that which furthers freedom of expression and the university’s mission of teaching, research and public service, is a responsibility of the Board of Regents that cannot be delegated,” he read.
The statement opposed a bill (LB718) requiring NU to form a committee to report “barriers to free speech” on campus to the Legislature each year, as well as “any legislation which usurps the power or duties of the board.”
LB718 was sponsored by Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings in response to NU’s handling of an Aug. 25 confrontation between a graduate student lecturer and an undergraduate student, the senator said.
Omaha Regent Hal Daub said he hoped NU’s “Commitment to Free Expression” — also approved Thursday — would have shown lawmakers critical of the university that regents were serious about addressing their concerns, but he worried about what signal the statement would send.
“I like to look at the larger picture,” Daub said. “And I worry about how people react to things.”
The former Omaha mayor said he was sympathetic to the argument Pillen was making and asked the Columbus hog farmer if he would be OK in removing the specific bill number from the statement, which he said could spiral into further disagreements with state lawmakers.
“I’m not inclined to table the motion, but I urge my colleagues to think about some other way of amending what you’re saying or handling it differently,” he said.
Pillen said he’s not a political person, and feels “there’s times a spade just needs to be called a spade.”
Regent Howard Hawks, also of Omaha, said he could back the statement without specific reference to the bill number because the statement still indicated the Legislature could not dictate policy to the university board.
Daub, who served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016, said he was a political person, but added he was concerned about other issues before the Legislature this year that could affect NU.
“Everybody could get a win-win out of this thing if it was headed in the right direction,” he said. “I just don’t want anybody to misunderstand what our intentions are.”
Pillen agreed to take the specific bill number out of his statement, but said he thought it important regents communicate the responsibilities of the Board of Regents to the Legislature and regents’ constituents throughout the state.
Hawks called the statement an alert to a few state senators “that we understand what our role is and are independent of the Legislature.”
Regents approved the amended statement — including language that read “the board opposes any legislation which usurps the power and duties of the board” — on a unanimous vote.