FARGO — A North Dakota legislative proposal that rings with an anti-abortion tinge was the target of a rally on the North Dakota State University campus on Thursday afternoon, April 22.
The 60 rallygoers gathered not to advocate for abortion rights, which weren't even mentioned, but to express concern about academic freedom, university research programs, educational opportunities and political overreach into public universities and colleges.
The students, faculty and community members rallied in opposition to an amendment to a higher education bill by State Sen. Janne Myrdal, a Republican from Edinburg in the far northeast corner of the state. Her amendment takes aim at a Planned Parenthood grant NDSU is using to educate at-risk youth about safe sex.
Myrdal's main objection is that she doesn't want NDSU or the University of North Dakota to partner with any entity — namely Planned Parenthood — or person that supports abortion. If they do, the university wouldn't receive Higher Education Challenge Matching Grants from the state.
In the matching grant program, NDSU, UND and other state colleges and universities receive $1 in state funding for every $2 the universities' foundations raise in donations.
Rallygoers cheered as UND professor and faculty representative to the State Board of Higher Education Liz Legerski said the amendment, although it targeted one grant at one institution, could have much greater implications.
"It's bad policy," she said, and would set a precedent in the state for legislators to target other grants and long-established research programs if they dislike the connections.
She said more than half of the over 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the legislation were from students who could have their educational options affected. Faculty, staff, administrators, parents and alumni have also voiced opposition and signed the petition, she said.
NDSU Faculty Senate President Florin Salajan told the crowd the legislation was an attack on academic freedom, which he compared to protections for the press and free speech in the U.S. Constitution.
"Legislators are taking us down a more authoritarian path, and that's not keeping with our democratic principles," he said.
Natasha Rosario, a student and intern through the Planned Parenthood grant, said "students who become aware of the proposal and its implications aren't happy" about the measure, and they feel it could limit "educational options."
Molly Secor-Turner, an NDSU nursing professor who has overseen the sex education program for almost 10 years, said the measure needs to be stopped in order to protect research and teaching.
At an earlier press conference, Secor-Turner said, "abortion isn't a part of any of the education that is being provided." Rather, she said, the educational program taught by Planned Parenthood instructs at-risk youth about safe sex and healthy sexuality using an evidence-based curriculum from the U.S. Department of Human Services.
Senate Bill 2030, to which Myrdal's amendment is attached, passed both the House and Senate in various forms earlier in the legislative session, and the Senate approved it again with her amendment.
Last month, the House went one step further and adopted two penalties for universities that partner with entities that support abortion — a $2.8 million state funding reduction for the university and a misdemeanor charge for the staff person who partnered with an abortion-supporting agency or person.
The Senate did not concur with the penalties the House attached to the bill, so the two chambers are negotiating potential amendments for the bill. Discussions are ongoing.
On Thursday, Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, proposed an amendment that removes the requirement that says universities cannot partner with entities that support or promote abortion. Instead, Krebsbach proposed a study that would look into the potential impacts on the state's 11 universities if the Legislature were to bar institutions from partnering with abortion supporters or promoters.
Lawmakers did not vote on the proposed amendment Thursday and decided to revisit amendments to the bill at a later date.
Meanwhile, those at the rally said they plan to write or call legislators and Gov. Doug Burgum.
Warren Christensen, a researcher and associate professor of physics, said he was at the rally because he believed the proposal was a "destructive attack on academic freedom."
He suggested legislators may not know how research funding works or how professors fight for dollars to help students, noting it probably wasn't part of legislators' jobs to know the ins and outs.
However, Christenson said, people should contact legislators, who could eliminate the proposal, or Burgum, who could veto the measure.
Associate professor of geology Lydia Tackett, who helped organize the rally, said, "Today, it's one sex education program, but tomorrow we have no idea what it could be. We don't do research based on the whims of state legislators."
Forum reporter Michelle Griffith contributed to this report