- The University of Idaho told students and employees Wednesday that it had not changed its policies, including those related to academic freedom, in response to a state law passed last year largely banning public funding from benefiting abortion providers.
- The missive, which came in an email to the campus, follows a national uproar over the university’s Sept. 23 warning to employees that they should discuss abortion in neutral terms or risk criminal charges under the law.
- The statute also bans public employees from promoting abortion, and the university’s general counsel had interpreted that to mean even talking about it in a positive light could trigger penalties. Administrators reinforced in their message Wednesday that violating the law could bring criminal charges and they were unclear how the state would enforce it.
The turmoil at the University of Idaho exemplifies a growing pattern of public institutions, out of fear of outrage from state policymakers, shifting their operations or messaging.
Another prime example is the University of Florida, the state’s flagship institution, where officials last year blocked three professors from participating in litigation against a voting rights law. Amid national outcry, the university relented and allowed their involvement, though a Chronicle of Higher Education investigation revealed this was part of a pattern of officials basing decisions on whether they might incur the wrath of the state’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature.
The case at the University of Florida prompted concerns that free inquiry was under fire, and the University of Idaho’s advice to employees on abortion last month drew similar criticisms.
President Joe Biden even weighed in on the University of Idaho controversy at a recent meeting of the White House Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access, asking “What century are we in?”
The University of Idaho told employees last month that classroom debate on abortion and similar topics “should be approached carefully” and be limited to relevant classroom instruction.
That message was misconstrued, and “took on a life of its own with misinformation, confusion and emotion leading the conversation,” Scott Green, the university’s president, and Torrey Lawrence, provost and executive vice president, said in the Wednesday email.
“This included those outside our university using this occasion to advance their own political agendas,” they said, not citing individuals or groups by name.
The officials said the university had not altered any policies after the state abortion law took effect. Nor were there changes to student access to contraceptives. The university said last month that it could offer condoms “for the purpose of helping prevent the spread of STDs and not for purposes of birth control.”
The duo said the university was preparing more “nuanced guidance” for the campus to understand state laws.
“We remain united in our mission of providing access to an affordable education, illuminating and elevating our students and conducting research that matters to Idaho industry,” the administrators wrote. “That work does not end when we face challenges.”