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North Dakota University System challenges ban on partnerships with abortion providers

The president of the NDSU Faculty Senate questioned whether the law could open the door to banning partnerships or curriculum on other topics legislators don’t like, such as climate change.

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North Dakota State University students and professors hold signs at a rally for academic freedom held in response to legislation aimed at an NDSU sex-ed program that involves Planned Parenthood on April 22, 2021, at NDSU’s Memorial Union in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — Higher education leaders want the state attorney general’s office to determine whether a law that bars public universities and colleges from partnering with groups that support abortion is constitutional, arguing it violates laws that protect academic freedom.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott sent the request for a review of Senate Bill 2030 on May 10. “As it is under legal review, we are evaluating options and consulting with legal counsel,” NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said.

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The North Dakota State University Faculty Senate also asked Hagerott to request a legal opinion from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in hopes of determining the impacts and constitutionality of the law. Educators have called the legislation a threat to academic freedom, which is protected under state law.

“Moreover, the vague formulation and broad scope of the language contained in the law will instill a climate of insecurity and fear of retribution, as researchers attempt to understand how to comply with its ramifications,” the Faculty Senate said in a May 11 letter.

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The bill initially intended to allocate money to the Challenge Fund, a matching grant program that provides $1 in state funding for every $2 in private donations for public schools.
Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, added an amendment that prevents the schools from receiving those funds if they partner with any group that performs or promotes an abortion, unless it will save a woman’s life.

Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill into law, but not before striking out criminal penalties from the legislation. He also vetoed the section that would have penalized any of the state's 11 colleges and universities $2.8 million if they partnered with an abortion provider.

Myrdal's amendment clarifies previous anti-abortion legislation passed in 2011, Myrdal told The Forum Thursday, May 20. That law prevents any state agency from funding or supporting programs that endorse abortion over normal childbirth.

NDSU previously denied requests by Myrdal and others to end its partnership with Planned Parenthood in presenting a workshop to help train teachers on how to talk with students about sex. The school received $250,000 in federal funding each year starting in 2017, with the goal of preventing unplanned pregnancies. That partnership will not be renewed this year.

NDSU Faculty Senate President Florin Salajan said legislators have made the law about abortion without considering how it restricts academic freedom.

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Multiple areas could be impacted, from studying in vitro fertilization to partnering with pharmaceutical companies if they manufacture abortion-inducing medications or emergency contraception, according to the Faculty Senate letter. Salajan also questioned whether the law could open the door to banning partnerships or curriculum on other topics legislators don’t like, such as climate change.

“It’s disconcerting for faculty because we’re left to wonder: Where do we draw the line, and who is going to do the policing work to see that these courses or that these materials comply with the law?” he said.

With the new law, faculty who fear retribution or interference may take their grants and research to another state, Salajan added.

Myrdal said educators have never proven claims that the amendment limits academic freedom. She disputed arguments that the law could lead to other subjects being banned by noting that the law is about banning partnerships with abortion providers, not prohibiting the discussion of a topic.

“They don’t like the bill,” she said. “It’s just that plain and simple.”

Myrdal said she was disappointed in the university system for challenging the law but is confident Stenehjem will uphold it.

“North Dakota citizens have elected lawmakers that believe in certain things, and they don’t want their money to go to an abortion provider,” she said.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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