BISMARCK — North Dakota State University officials are crying foul over state lawmakers' efforts to restrict the institution from applying for grants with ties to abortion.
"This is an affront and an attack on academic freedom, and therefore the First Amendment," said Florin Salajan, an NDSU teacher education professor and NDSU Faculty Senate president.
Republican lawmakers have raised objections to an NDSU professor's work on sex education that's partnered with Planned Parenthood, a national organization that provides safe sex education and performs abortions at many of its facilities.
The sex education program aims to teach at-risk youth about safe sex and healthy sexuality. It does not instruct students about abortion, said Molly Secor-Turner, an NDSU associate professor and the principal investigator behind the research and program grant.
"The programs are trying to prevent pregnancy from occurring in the first place so that a young person would never have to decide between the hard choice of continuing a pregnancy or an abortion," Secor-Turner said.
North Dakota lawmakers have long opposed the program because of its ties with Planned Parenthood. During the last legislative session in 2019, 89 state legislators sent a letter to NDSU expressing their displeasure with the university's "public partnership with Planned Parenthood."
The program's objective is to create optimal sex education programming for different communities in North Dakota, like children in foster care, homeless youth or anyone living in areas with high teen birth rates. It's been around since 2012, and more than 600 youth under 19 have taken part.
Dissatisfaction over the program resurfaced earlier this year with Senate Bill 2030. The bill addresses the funds for the state's Higher Education Challenge Matching Grant, which awards NDSU and the University of North Dakota $1 in state funding for every $2 the universities' foundations raise in donations. The funds granted by the state are to be used "exclusively to the advancement of academics," according to the North Dakota Century Code.
In February, Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, proposed an amendment to the bill with a provision that states UND and NDSU would not be allowed to partner with entities that support or promote abortion under the matching grant program.
The bill passed the Senate with the amendment attached, and has moved to the House for consideration.
"I understand that this committee and the Legislature may wish to punish NDSU for these academic matters," NDSU President Dean Bresciani said in testimony about the amendment. "However, the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to how NDSU, and all colleges and universities, operate and must be maintained for accreditation purposes."
Bresciani testified that North Dakota lawmakers are discussing withholding more than $3 million in funding from NDSU.
Along with Bresciani, Secor-Turner testified at the Capitol that the regulations surrounding a federal grant that the program receives dictate that the program's curriculum meets federal regulations and that Planned Parenthood is the only entity in the region that meets the regulations. The curriculum must come from an organization in the North Dakota region, Secor-Turner told lawmakers. Planned Parenthood does not teach anything under the grant that is not mandated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to NDSU.
"They say that they teach children that are high risk. I would wager to say that what they teach is pretty high risk," Myrdal said on the Senate floor in February.
Secor-Turner said she's disappointed there's been such a misunderstanding about the program among lawmakers. She said she's opted not to reapply for the federal grant, effectively ending the program once the current grant ends in September.
Salajan said lawmakers don't understand that garnering federal grants is a core objective to many, if not most, university faculty members and researchers. Without federal grants like the one Secor-Turner was awarded, "NDSU would not be a competitive research university," he said.
Salajan said lawmakers "want to direct and dictate what research would be acceptable to them because of their political or moral or ethical conduct, and they shouldn't."
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