Delaying fellowship didn’t breach academic freedom, committee says

However, some committee members said the University should have asked them before deciding to delay the fellowship.

Jake Steinberg

A University Senate committee has determined the University of Minnesota’s decision to delay a controversial reproductive health fellowship did not violate academic freedom.

The committee also criticized the University’s process and several members said administration should have consulted them first. The fellowship, funded by the Reproductive Health Access Project, would have placed a fellow at a community care clinic for a year, where they would have been trained in reproductive health care — including performing abortions.

The University removed the fellowship from its website last May following backlash from anti-abortion lawmakers and conservative media. In September, the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee began questioning whether this constituted a breach of academic freedom.

Board of Regents policy describes academic freedom as “the freedom, without institutional discipline or restraint … to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression.”

Following a Nov. 2 meeting that was closed at the request of University President Eric Kaler and Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar, the committee concluded there was no breach of academic freedom. Because the meeting was closed, committee members couldn’t speak to specifics about the University’s decision-making process.

“People directly involved were given funding or assignments to continue research or educational directives,” said committee chair Jessica Larson in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Larson said the University still trains physicians in reproductive health care. This includes training for abortions, which is required to maintain an accredited obstetrics and gynecology program in the United States. Therefore, the University wasn’t restraining an avenue of scholarship in delaying this particular fellowship.

“We were still able to achieve our academic and research expectations and goals in line with our mission by not doing the fellowship,” said Medical School communications and marketing director Naomi McDonald.

McDonald said the Medical School is still examining the “value” of the fellowship. “We reserve the right to do it if we feel like the time is right and the opportunity is right and it’s in line with our mission,” she said.

However, some committee members felt the University should have asked them before deciding to delay the fellowship.

“The purpose of having a consultative faculty governance process is for them to consult,” said committee member Jerry Cohen. “It’s not that we think that they did anything wrong. It would be better in these cases to engage faculty earlier in the process.”

According to a statement being drafted by the committee, the appearance of impropriety could have been avoided if the Medical School and administration had broadened the discussion before making its decision.

“The absence of soliciting broad consultation may provoke an unnecessary chilling effect and lead to the mistaken belief that political or social pressure has been used to stifle research,” the draft statement says.