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North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani has announced a ban on a federal research grant to two faculty for a sex education program, after Republican legislators objected to its connection with Planned Parenthood. Bresciani claims to be obeying a state law, but that law only relates to family planning programs. Below is an open letter to Bresciani from Thomas Stone Carlson, president of the Faculty Senate, followed by the letter from Bresciani announcing his decision.
An Open Letter to President Bresciani
By Thomas Stone Carlson
January 17, 2013
The Faculty Senate Executive Committee met this morning to discuss your recent decision to freeze $1.2 million dollars of research funding that two NDSU faculty members received from the Department of Health and Human Services to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of a sex education program designed to help adolescents make healthy life decisions. After exploring the details and facts associated with this decision the Faculty Senate Executive Committee is writing to express our strong disagreement with your decision. Our immediate concerns are twofold. First, based on the information that we have gathered so far, and contrary to what seems to be circulating in much of the popular press, there is no evidence that the funds in question can or will be used to support family planning or abortion. Period. Thus, we feel that misinformation is dominating the public discourse around this issue. Second, we believe that your decision to err on the side of a few legislators, who are known for their anti-Planned Parenthood agendas, represents a concession of academic freedom, arguably the most singular tenet of the academy and the most deterministic for the long-term success of any institution of higher education. We also have serious concerns about the process by which you made and communicated this decision. Before highlighting our specific concerns, we want to provide some of the facts related to the grant and the possible legal conflict to the entire faculty so that they can be informed about this important issue.
During an interview on the Scott Hennen radio show, you mentioned that you were informed by legal counsel that the grant was a potential violation of state law. The law that you were referring to is Chapter 14-02.3-02 of the North Dakota Century Code which states that “No funds of this state or any agency, county, municipality, or any other subdivision thereof and no federal funds passing through the state treasury or a state agency may be used as family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers, or encourages abortion.” In your interview, you stated that the grant’s partnership with Planned Parenthood was the reason for the potential violation of the law. After researching the purpose of the grant and the specific requirements of the granting agency, it seems clear that the grant is not in violation of this particular code. First, the grant in question is in no way associated with family planning and, therefore, expenditure of the grant funds for family planning (including abortion) is not an allowed expense. To the contrary, the grant is focused on implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of an evidenced based sex education program. Second, the grant funding for this project comes from federal funds that are distributed under Title 5 guidelines funds (http://mchb.hrsa.gov/programs/adolescents/index.html). In 1980, a legal case, VALLEY FAMILY PLANNING v. STATE OF N. D., 489 F.Supp. 238 (1980), clearly decided that the law in question does not apply to Title 5 funds. Given this decision, there would appear to be no legal basis for denying these faculty PIs the right to use the funds that they received to pursue the aims of their grant proposal. Additionally, the legal case also challenged the constitutionality of the law. During your interview with Scott Hennen you mentioned that the research was not technically a violation of the law but that you believed it to be inconsistent with the intent of the law and that you did not want to go against the intent of the legislature.
Imposing such a loose interpretation of the intent of this particular law creates a “slippery slope” that could potentially raise questions about the ability of NDSU faculty to partner with other private and federal agencies that would technically fit within the definition of the “intent” of the law to which you referred. For example, Sanford Health, one of the University’s newest and largest partners, makes family planning recommendations and performs certain family planning procedures. Should the University then, cease any current funded partnerships with Sanford Health? Should it return any existing funding for any ongoing projects that are associated with Sanford Health? Using the intent of the law as the legal basis from which you decide to accept or reject grant funding has the potential to not only affect research that might be related to family planning but also other politically charged issues such as genetic engineering, population control, gun control, non-traditional family forms; the list is long. Not only does this decision have the potential to negatively impact the ability of NDSU researchers to obtain federally funded research grants, it also has the ability to serious damage the credibility of NDSU as a research intensive university; a designation that we have all worked hard to achieve. We are concerned that this decision will discourage future faculty researchers and scholars from coming to NDSU out of fear that they may not be able to freely pursue their research agendas.
We are aware that you have received significant pressure from legislators (Betty Grande and Jim Kasper in particular) who have political agendas that oppose the work of Planned Parenthood. The announcement of your decision to freeze this funding on a conservative talk show and the quick response of several conservative groups thanking legislators for this important victory against Planned Parenthood, makes it difficult to see your decision as anything other than bowing to political pressure. In this context, your decision puts politics ahead of your responsibility as President to support and protects the rights of faculty researchers to the basic premise of the academy, academic freedom. SBHE policy 401.1 on academic freedom states that “The primary responsibility of the academic community is to provide for the enrichment of intellectual experience. Essential to the realization of this ideal is a free and open academic community which takes no ideological or policy position itself.” Policy 401.1 also states that “Faculty members are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties. If there are controls to be exercised over faculty members, they are the controls of personal integrity and the judgment of their colleagues.”
Finally, we feel that it is vital to communicate our concerns about the process by which you came to this decision. As we understand it, at no time during this process did you talk to the researchers whose project is in question, despite their repeated invitations to meet with you, provide you with specific information about the project, and clarify any questions about the goals and legality of the project. Given the significant impact this decision would have on these two faculty researchers and the entire NDSU faculty your failure to directly communicate with the PIs of the grant in question or any faculty leadership about this issue is a great concern to us. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that you have made decisions that are vital to the functioning and success of NDSU without first consulting faculty or faculty leadership (e.g., your decision to close the child care center). The Faculty Senate Executive Committee urges you to adhere to the promise you made during your interview to participate in shared governance which in this case should have involved engaging in direct conversations with at least the two faculty members involved and preferably also with the leadership of the faculty senate.
We respectfully ask that you reverse your decision to return the funds associated with this grant and respect the rights of faculty to pursue their research without undue influence of politics. A major research university like NDSU should not be involved in telling its faculty that they cannot pursue their areas of research because it is concerned about offending the political views of some members of the legislature. Nor should it use perceived “intent” of the legislators who created this particular law written almost 30 years ago as the gold standard by which it makes decision on whether or not to accept funding from granting agencies.
Thomas Stone Carlson, President of the Faculty Senate
On Behalf of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee (Faculty Members Only)
Letter from NDSU President Dean Bresciani Announcing Ban on Research Grant
Given growing concerns, I am writing this quick message to you today from our state legislative session in Bismarck, to address perhaps understandable concern around a recently-announced federal grant (Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families) to two nationally recognized faculty researchers at NDSU. First, let me state unequivocally, intellectual and academic freedom is cherished at NDSU. We are and remain fully committed to protecting that expectation for our scholars.
As a practical matter, all grant awards from federal or state agencies come with a wide array of regulations, guidelines, restrictions, reporting obligations and performance expectations. As the grant recipient, NDSU has an absolute obligation to comply with those regulations, as well as any applicable laws or statutes. In the case of the grant in question and after it was received, several legal questions emerged regarding our ability to utilize the grant under North Dakota law. The only responsible action is to freeze the funds while that question is resolved. That is the only decision that has been made at this point in time.
In closing I’d like to offer a special commendation of the exceptional work by the faculty in obtaining this grant. A competitive federal grant of more than $1 million in their field is not typical and suggests a rather compelling and impressive proposal. Along with the Provost and their Deans, I add my voice in respect for the principal investigators who successfully secured the involved federal grant.
Also, please know that we are constantly confronted with external political pressures of all shapes and forms, so the current situation is nothing new. In short, though, political pressure is not nor cannot be the basis on which we make academic decisions. At the same time, I hope you will agree that we have no choice but to abide by the laws of North Dakota. When a matter of law is unsure, we will always exercise a responsibility to seek sure confirmation in directing our final actions.
Thank you for your time and consideration of this explanation.
Dean L. Bresciani, President
North Dakota State University