University of Iowa dean apologizes to conservative student after stifling freedom of speech

The dean of the UI College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics at the University of Iowa issued an apology to a conservative dental student this week. The kerfuffle happened back in October over an executive order signed by President Trump in September to end some diversity and inclusion training on federally funded college campuses. The dean criticized Trump’s action and then tried to deny a conservative student’s right to voice his opinion of the dean’s behavior.

Trump’s executive order, titled “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping”, was controversial at the time as liberal colleges and universities objected to ending the diversity training agenda prevalent on so many campuses today. The Trump administration’s position was that diversity training in government agencies promoted a narrative that racism is everywhere and scapegoats white Americans for the ills in society.

Citing the “malign ideology” of training materials and statements from recent diversity efforts at the Treasury Department and several national laboratories and museums — such as guidance that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” — the order prohibits the promotion of “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the federal workforce or in the uniformed services. Federal contractors also will not be permitted to “inculcate such views in their employees,” and grant funds will not be used for such purposes.

Prohibited concepts under the order include that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that the U.S. “is fundamentally racist or sexist” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

At the time, the University of Iowa’s associate vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (a real position) balked at the executive order but decided that the university would go along with it so as not to lose any federal funding. It’s all about the money with college administrators. She paused the university’s program for two weeks.

In a campus memo, the University of Iowa’s interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Liz Tovar, said, “Let us state unequivocally that diversity, equity and inclusion remain as core values within our institution.” However, she continued, “after consulting with multiple entities, and given the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order, which include the loss of federal funding, we are recommending that all units temporarily pause for a two-week period.”

The dental school’s leadership and facility members sent out a mass email to its students in October condemning Trump’s executive order. A conservative student, Michael Brase, responded to the email, including not just the facility members who sent the email but to all those who received it, in which he asked a simple question – why should federal funding be used to scapegoat some people for the benefit of others?

“By condemning Executive Order 13950, does the [College of Dentistry] support using federal funds to promote trainings that include race/sex stereotyping and/or race/sex scapegoating?” he wrote. And he asked why the college shouldn’t follow the guidelines in the executive order and “continue to provide training that encourages respect and equality for all races/sexes.”

Brase received a response which was along the lines of how dare you question the dean and faculty of the dental school? Brase was ordered to attend a student conduct hearing. “It has come to the attention of the Collegiate Academic and Professional Performance Committee (CAPP) your unprofessional behavior involving the follow-up emails you sent out on a public platform after you were offered other means to continue the conversation,” the email said. The school was trying to keep his objection quiet and not give other students a chance to hear Brase’s objections. They messed with the wrong conservative student, though, and the order to attend a student conduct hearing only lasted for two days – Brase went to state legislators with the story.

The Iowa House Government Oversight Committee met this week. The dean of the UI College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics, David Johnsen, apologized to members of the House Government Oversight Committee for condemning the executive order. He also acknowledged his actions “silenced students’ right to free speech.” He apologized for singling out Brase for disciplinary action, too.

We do not want any of our students to have an experience that leaves them feeling unsupported or fearful, and we’ve failed Michael in that regard. And, to be honest with the committee, we have heard from other students, faculty and staff and our colleagues that we have failed them as well,” Johnsen said Tuesday.

Imagine that – the dean and his faculty learned that it wasn’t just one student that objected to political opinions of their dean and facility being shoved on him, it was other students, too. The students are not there to be subjected to the political opinions of the people in charge of their education. Also, when a college or university is beholden to federal funding, those funds come with obligations. When the second-year dental student hit “reply all” to his email in response to the heavy-handed objection voiced by the dean and facility in their original email to students, they quickly learned that at least one student was willing to push back. Brase simply stated that the university should follow the executive order and “continue to provide training that encourages respect and equality for all races/sexes.”

Many people, Brase continued in his reply, had thanked him privately for sharing his opinions.

“I (and apparently many others) do have a problem with the (College of Dentistry) using their sway as an organization to essentially condemn/support any given political party/candidate. The University of Iowa is a public institution and there is no place for the recent string of blatantly political statements that have recently been made,” Brase wrote.

Good for him. It’s rare for leadership in universities to publicly apologize for their authoritarian tendencies on campus.