Students organize petition for reinstatement of controversial UMN fellowship

The petition, which was launched by University of Minnesota student government leaders, claims the University gave in to pressure from Minnesota lawmakers.

Illustration by Jane Borstad.

Jane Borstad

Illustration by Jane Borstad.

by Cleo Krejci

University of Minnesota students are organizing a response to the delay of a controversial fellowship.

Last week, University student government leaders launched a petition demanding a reproductive rights advocacy fellowship be reinstated after it was delayed by University officials earlier this month following controversy over its medical training involving abortions.

Among a variety of concerns, the petition claims the University gave in to pressure from members of the Minnesota Legislature who threatened to deny funding for the University if the fellowship was not removed. 

As of May 30, around 2,500 people have signed the petition.

Trish Palermo, outgoing undergraduate student body president and co-author of the petition, shared the petition in a campus-wide email on May 23. The petition is addressed to University President Eric Kaler and Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar. 

Palermo said she and other student government leaders, including three others from the Minnesota Student Association and Professional Student Government, came together after students approached them with concerns about the issue. 

“Our hope is that our voices are heard loud and clear to administration … due to the thousands of students that indicated concern on the petition,” Palermo said. 

The petition states that, as a public institution, the University should not allow partisan politics to influence the future of educational programs like the fellowship.

While some students support the fellowship, others are opposed to it. 

Caleb Murphy, former president of anti-abortion University student group Medical Students for Human Life, said he thinks the fellowship is explicitly political.

“If you are a public institution like the University of Minnesota and you make an effort to foster a particular political viewpoint … it’s not surprising that there would be backlash,” he said.

The petition also addresses Tolar’s statement made in early May regarding the fellowship’s delay.

Tolar’s statement, which is quoted in the petition, states, “we will examine the value of this training in the context of our mission along with the values of the community.” 

The authors of the petition said this response was unacceptable. 

“I think that the value of [the fellowship] is clear, said incoming PSG resident and co-author of the petition Alanna Pawlowski. “[The fellowship is] supporting procedures that are legal, that are beneficial and that are used widely.”

The petition states that denying educational opportunities to a fellow on a variety of legal reproductive health care procedures puts other University academic programs and patients at risk.

“For the University to rescind [the fellowship] makes me, as a former student, feel as if my own University doesn’t condone or support my own career choices,” said Kaiya Lyons, University Law School graduate and former reproductive health policy legal intern for the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The Legislature’s response

The decision to delay the fellowship was made while a bonding bill that allocates state higher education infrastructure funding was being negotiated in the Minnesota Legislature. 

“The Medical School did not make this decision alone. The decision was made by President [Kaler] and his senior advisors at a critical point in the legislative session with the threat of elimination of the University’s bonding request,” the University wrote in a statement to the Minnesota Daily. 

The bonding bill, which was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday, provides $80 million in funding for University infrastructure projects on all five campuses.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, chief author of the bonding bill, said he spoke with Kaler while the bill was still being discussed in committee.

“What I said [to Kaler] was that I knew there were concerns among my caucus members and that we might have trouble passing a bonding bill because of [the fellowship],” he said.

According to Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, Kaler told him that the University intended to delay the fellowship before the Senate bonding bill vote. 

The fellowship was officially delayed on May 5. 

On May 18, nearly two weeks after the fellowship had been delayed, five Republican State Senators introduced a new bill proposing that the University’s Board of Regents be prohibited from funding fellowships to provide “training, advocacy or education related to abortions.”

“[The bill] just sends a message that we were not in favor and that we want further discussion over that type of program,” said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, co-sponsor of the bill. 

Because the bill was introduced late in the session, it will need to be introduced next February to be reconsidered. 

Madeline Deninger contributed reporting for this story.