North Dakota legislators are sending a message to professors and academic researchers around the nation: If you come here, politicians can run roughshod over your academic freedom.

It’s a chilling message and a giant step backwards. It will hamper the North Dakota University System’s ability to attract and retain top-flight teachers and researchers. That’s not helpful for a state that ranks near the bottom in innovation, driven in large part by research and development.

The North Dakota House has overwhelmingly passed a Senate bill that imposes harsh penalties for universities that collaborate with those who perform or promote abortions, except those to save the life of a mother.

The penalties have been added to a popular and successful challenge grant program, which contributes $1 in state funding for every $2 in non-state, non-federal support raised on behalf of state colleges and universities.


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The target of the bill is clear: North Dakota State University has for almost 10 years worked with Planned Parenthood to provide an evidence-based course to teach at risk teenagers to make informed decisions to help avoid pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.

The money for the course, which has helped more than 600 vulnerable teens around North Dakota, is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under an initiative that started with the Obama administration and continued through the Trump administration.

The grants are awarded through a competitive process. Only sound curricula that have been proven to be effective are eligible for federal funds. The approach, which incorporates students’ values, which are molded by their families, works.

Faculty at NDSU, the University of North Dakota and the state’s entire 11-campus higher education system are justifiably upset about the ham-handedness of meddlesome politicians and the damage they will cause.

The Faculty Senate at NDSU passed a resolution condemning the legislation. The Faculty Senate, according to the resolution, “strongly objects to conditioning [state] institutions’ eligibility for state financial appropriations on the nature of academic and research pursuits.”

NDSU President Dean Bresciani has warned legislators of the consequences, but they haven’t listened. “Please understand that it would be creating serious constitutional, legal, accreditation and State Board of Higher Education policy risks to NDSU by canceling academic offerings at the behest of the legislature.”

The Legislature’s eagerness to impose penalties for research it frowns upon raises troubling questions.

Where will this meddling end? What disfavored or controversial research program is next?

Fossil fuels are controversial — green energy advocates might push to penalize research on petroleum or coal. Animal rights advocates could push for penalties on animal research at NDSU. Some people see pharmaceutical companies as villains — should we penalize pharmaceutical research?

Where does this end?

This wrongheaded legislation places the state’s foot on a very slippery slope. If North Dakota isn’t careful, it could end up with a university system that one academician compared to a very expensive high school.

We already know one unfortunate consequence. Molly Secor-Turner, the NDSU professor who is the principal researcher for the grant to provide the evidence-based sex education program, has announced that she will allow the grant to expire in September.

She doesn’t want to risk being responsible for the loss of millions of dollars of research dollars at NDSU. But now more at-risk teenagers will go without proven instruction to avoid pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

How is this good for North Dakota? The bill now goes to a conference committee to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions. If it passes with the penalties intact, Gov. Doug Burgum should veto the bill to prevent serious damage to our university system.