What Would 'Woody' Have Done?

January, 2018

Lincoln -- As expected, the American Association of University Professors has now formed a committee to investigate the circumstances under which UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green fired graduate student instructor Courtney Lawton. The AAUP could censure UNL for failure to follow due process and make it more difficult for the institution to recruit faculty.

This would be the second time in recent years that a prominent national organization has struck at UNL. In 2011, the Association of American Universities expelled UNL from membership over the futile pleas of Chancellor Harvey Perlman.

The Lawton firing came after Chancellor Green and President Hank Bounds met with three freshman state senators at the State Capitol, who demanded the action and suggested UNL would face budget cuts if Ms. Lawton was not fired over a name-calling incident. In August, 2017, Ms. Lawton had called sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen a "neo-fascist" for passing out "Big Government Sucks" buttons at an outdoor display table on campus.

Governor Pete Ricketts got into the act by polling his donors as to whether they were concerned that UNL was mistreating conservative students, then slashed UNL funding in his 2018 state budget. The firing of Ms. Lawton didn't seem to appease anyone, unless we expect the three freshmen senators to add money back during the upcoming legislative session because the chancellor followed their advice. That's not going to happen: the three are connected to the alt-right and are reveling in the havoc they have created.

Back in the 1970s, chancellor-turned-president Durward 'Woody' Varner faced a similar standoff with state senators. Appropriations committee chairman Richard Marvel wanted to put earmarks on new UNL money. Varner was okay with the money, but not the earmarks. He persuaded the Board of Regents to sue on grounds that such specific directions were a violation of the Nebraska Constitution. This put the Nebraska attorney general, Paul Douglas, on the spot as to whether he would defend Marvel and the legislature or ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to rule in a declaratory judgment for the Regents. He did the latter and the Regents won. Not coincidentally, Marvel's political career was over.

One wonders why the same route was not taken by the chancellor, president, and regents in the recent confrontation with senators who want to run the university. Short memories, perhaps. When two different branches of government – the legislature and the regents in this case – are in conflict, it is a matter to hand over to the attorney general and to the courts to sort out. How much better it would be for the university were attorney general Doug Peterson mulling over constitutional precedent rather than having a visit from the AAUP.

Many people miss Woody Varner, a smooth talker and sometimes a clever political strategist. Eventually, he got a little too clever for his own good and wound up resigning, only to move over to head the NU Foundation, where he was a superb fund-raiser. Too bad his legacy has been so soon forgotten.