The basement of Varner Hall at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln filled up quickly before Friday’s NU Board of Regents meeting. On the meeting agenda: Critical Race Theory (CRT).
In July, Regent Jim Pillen introduced the now-failed resolution to ban the “imposition” of CRT on NU campuses. Pillen, who is kicking off a race for governor next year, had the support of current governor Pete Ricketts and Chair of the Board of Regents Paul Kenney. He didn’t have support, however, from students.
“What message do we send to students of color?” UNL graduate Rosalind Kichler said.
On the front steps of Varner Hall before the meeting, NU students and all four student regents gathered for the “Protect Academic Freedom Rally,” dressed in red shirts and holding signs that read “Keep politics out of our classrooms.” Speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) criticized the resolution for restricting free speech.
“This is a modern day book burning,” said Danielle Conrad, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska and former state senator. “This is ‘cancel culture’ at its worst.”
The student body government of each NU campus previously passed a resolution “affirming academic freedom” and to oppose any CRT ban. All four student regents, including UNO Student Body President Maeve Hemmer, gave their non-binding vote against Pillen’s resolution.
“The students have spoken,” Hemmer said.
Regent Kenney closed public comment after nearly 90 minutes of testimony from students, faculty, alumni and other Nebraska residents. Each regent member spoke before the vote.
“This resolution has a clearly defined scope and mission,” Pillen said. “To prevent this institution from promoting extreme ideologies.”
A brief applause broke out when Regent Tim Clare announced his opposition, but he asked for it to stop. Clare, a Republican representing parts of Lancaster County, said the resolution would undermine the board’s trust in NU President Ted Carter and teachers across the NU system.
“If we do not have faith in our academic leaders, then we have much bigger issues,” Clare said.
Regents Barbara Weitz and Elizabeth O’Connor, both representing parts of the Omaha metro, said they opposed the resolution before the meeting. Weitz said she understood Pillen’s concern, but the resolution would be unnecessary. She said she taught theories she didn’t agree with during her time as a professor.
Regents Jack Stark and Bob Phares also said the resolution would be unnecessary, as CRT is not currently required for NU students. Stark added that the university needs to do a better job of explaining what the university does require.
Regent Robert Schafer said he supported the resolution even though CRT is not currently required. Schafer said it would prevent CRT from being imposed in the future.
All eight regents made sure not to attack Pillen’s character before the vote. Schafer said students in some other countries don’t have the opportunity to debate issues like this.
The final vote was 5-3 against, with Schafer and Kenney joining Pillen in voting for.
President Carter, who put out a joint statement with NU chancellors last month opposing the resolution, said the decision wasn’t political. He said it was for the betterment of the students, and that Nebraska would set an example for universities across the country.
UNL Student Regent Batool Ibrahim, sitting next to Pillen, said that CRT is crucial for teaching the history of people of color in the U.S. Ibrahim was the first Black person elected student body president at UNL and the only person of color on the board.
“We have a moral obligation as Americans to analyze and critique our history for what it is and what it was,” Ibrahim said. “The minute we try to hide it…then we have failed our founding fathers.”
What is Critical Race Theory?
“I would like to issue a challenge to the regents supporting this resolution,” said Sarah Brumfield, a sociology graduate student at UNO. “Please define Critical Race Theory without the use of Google, Fox News, or Breitbart.”
Omaha Human Rights and Relations director and part-time UNO professor Franklin Thompson said that he has taught Critical Race Theory for a long time. As a Black man, a member of the Republican party, and an educator, Thompson has a unique perspective on CRT.
Thompson said there are three ways to talk about CRT: a right way, and two wrong ways. The right way, Thompson said, is that CRT is more about power dynamics than it is about skin color.
“Every nation has an in-group and multiple out-groups,” Thompson said. “A member of the in-group has privilege, not because of skin color, but because of their position within society.”
That privilege manifests not only itself in blatantly racist institutions like slavery and segregation, but also in more subtle ways. Thompson said members of the out-group have “more hoops to jump through” to decide, and the in-group can define what is healthy, sacred and normal.
Thompson said that race is only the “lowest hanging fruit used to stratify people,” and that CRT can be used to analyze other forms of majority group privilege. Thompson used ethnic conflicts in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia as examples.
“In Rwanda, you had the Hutus as the in-group and the Tutsis were marginalized, but they were all Black,” Thompson said. “In Yugoslavia, the Serbs dogged at Albanians, even though they were all white. It’s the same principle as CRT.”
The wrong ways to talk about CRT exist on both sides of the political spectrum. Thompson said that media pundits, be it on MSNBC or Fox News, have used CRT to earn “political points.”
“Political people got a hold of a solid theory and bastardized it,” Thompson said.
Thompson said some Republicans believe that CRT is a “trick by Marxists” to start a Communist revolution. Thompson, himself a Republican who teaches CRT, said he’s a capitalist.
“If whites want to be fragile, I can’t do anything about it,” Thompson said.
Debate over CRT is a “predictable dysfunction,” Thompson said. He said those in the in-group are often blind to their own privilege, so they find ways to justify staying in that privileged position.
Thompson said those on the left sometimes mistake the point of CRT being that there’s “a snake under every rock, and the color of that snake is white.” Thompson said that the academic theory “couldn’t care less” about an individual’s race or political affiliation, and focuses more on systems.
Multiple professors who spoke on Friday said CRT was an important framework for their research and curriculum. Thompson said professors at UNO were mostly on the same page.
“Even if we don’t always agree, we do agree CRT has the right to exist,” Thompson said. “At the college level, banning certain theories seems almost un-American.”