Using a budget bill as leverage, state lawmakers are pressuring a professor of nursing at North Dakota State University to drop her longtime research project on youth sex education.
North Dakota has just one clinic that provides abortions, and it is not part of Planned Parenthood. But the professor’s sex education program is affiliated with Planned Parenthood, which some state lawmakers say is unacceptable.
A Fundamentally Altered Bill
State Bill 2030, the state Senate’s version of the bill, seeks to withhold key funding from any institution that is “sponsoring, partnering with, applying for grants with, or providing a grant subaward to any person or organization that performs, or promotes the performance of, an abortion unless the abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the woman.”
The bill also seeks to financially penalize any institution that is somehow promoting “any organization, that between normal childbirth and abortion, do not give preference, encouragement and support to normal childbirth.”
SB 2030 was originally about North Dakota’s Challenge Grant program, which matches $1 for every $3 donated to universities for scholarships under certain circumstances. This program is generally uncontroversial and popular among Republicans and Democrats alike. When it came up for a vote this year, however, it featured an amendment targeting North Dakota State’s link to Planned Parenthood.
The amendment’s sponsor, Republican Janne Myrdal, told fellow senators that the legislation was in line with state code prohibiting the use of public funds for the “performance, referral and encouragement” of abortions.
“Any institution in North Dakota that gets taxpayer money should follow the laws that are already in the Century Code,” Myrdal said during legislative session earlier this year. Without referring to Planned Parenthood by name, she continued, “They say they teach children that are high risk. I would wager to say that what they teach is pretty high risk and I won’t repeat any of what that organization teaches because it’s pretty R-rated information.”
Several senators objected to the amended bill on the grounds that Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with scholarships. The bill eventually passed the Senate by a clear margin anyway. It then moved on to a state House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee.
The House subcommittee’s version of the bill would cut by 2.5 percent the operating budget of any campus that contracts with someone who “performs or promotes the performance of an abortion.”
North Dakota State estimates this kind of cut would amount to $2.8 million of its own budget. The university was still waiting for the exact wording of the bill last week, but the Associated Press reported that the House amendment version says that whoever signs such a contract would face a misdemeanor charge, jail time and a $1,500 fine.
North Dakota State’s faculty and administration are urging lawmakers to reconsider, arguing that this is about much more than one researcher’s grant.
The university’s Faculty Senate last month passed a resolution saying that SB 2030 as written violates the First Amendment, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890, and academic freedom. The Faculty Senate “strongly objects to conditioning [state] institutions’ eligibility for state financial appropriations on the nature of academic and research pursuits,” that resolution says.
Dean Bresciani, university president, said in his own statement to the House appropriations committee, “Please understand that I 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.”
Unlike K-12 institutions, he said, a college or university — particularly one dedicated to research — “cannot dictate how researchers conduct research or deliver curricula. Instead, faculty have a great deal of leeway on these issues. This is referred to as academic freedom, and it is rooted in freedom of speech.”
Florin D. Salajan, professor of education and president of North Dakota State’s Faculty Senate, has been an outspoken supporter of the professor behind the sex education grant, Molly Secor-Turner. Salajan most recently wrote to the House subcommittee about his disappointment that earlier appeals to lawmakers’ respect for academic freedom had gone unheeded.
Most “alarming,” Salajan said, is the “manner in which committee members have resorted to intimidation tactics, the threat of legal repercussions and imposition of financial penalties to prevent the legitimate pursuit of scholarly work that has been demonstrated to be beneficial to our fellow citizens, but that legislators may consider at odds with their own convictions.”
Students also oppose the amendment. The North Dakota Student Association, a statewide group of public college and university students, said in a resolution that it took no stance on the issue of abortion itself. But it rejected the practice of attaching “divisive political stances to an unrelated educational bill to further a political agenda.”
‘A Harbinger of Nightmares to Come’
Salajan said Friday that the bill will have “negative consequences on the ability or even desire of faculty and researchers at North Dakota’s [colleges and universities] to seek competitive federal grants. It will have a chilling effect on faculty retention and recruitment and will reduce our universities to, as one colleague put it, ‘very expensive high schools.’ What faculty members will want to stay or come to a quote-unquote research university in the state if they cannot conduct their research, because the legislators can always pass laws to restrict the research areas they don’t like?”
Student learning will take a hit, too, he said.
Secor-Turner recently appeared before the appropriations committee to answer questions about her work and what other connections she has with Planned Parenthood. She said she sometimes does consulting work that involves the organization and that North Dakota State has hosted professional development sessions for teachers on evidence-based sex education.
Secor-Turner told Inside Higher Ed that her primary research is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Competitive Personal Responsibility Education Program, which “supports programming that replicates evidence-based, medically accurate comprehensive sexuality education curricula.”
Federal grantees are required to a select their curricula from an approved list, which includes the Making Proud Choices program centered on preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — Secor-Turner’s choice. To deliver it the curriculum, she partnered with Planned Parenthood of the North Central States, whose affiliated office in St. Paul “had a very strong comprehensive sexuality education department with over 40 years of providing community-based sex ed.” The office had also taught Making Proud Choices before.
“Essentially, we chose the entity with the most expertise and experience to partner with for implementation to strengthen the merit of our grant proposal,” Secor-Turner said. “We did reach out to other organizations who serve youth to be potential partners, but none were either interested or able to partner.”
Secor-Turner first applied for the grant in 2012, and it’s been renewed or extended every year since, under the Obama and Trump administrations. It’s about $250,000 annually, split between North Dakota State, which evaluates and further researches the sex education program’s effectiveness, and Planned Parenthood, which administers the program.
It’s “a well-matched community-university partnership,” Secor-Turner said. She and her research and instructional partners have focused on tailoring the curriculum to young people in North Dakota who may be at higher risk for teen pregnancy, and on evaluating its effectiveness regarding knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and intentions related to reducing risky sexual behavior.
Working with Planned Parenthood, Secor-Turner has adapted programs for Native American youth, refugees and faith-based settings. Outcomes for some 600 participants thus far demonstrate that they have increased knowledge about sexual health, safer sexual health beliefs and attitudes, and improved communication skills about sexuality with partners, peers and parents.
According to information from Planned Parenthood, the program is voluntary in North Dakota, and participants under age 17 need a parent’s permission. According to strict federal guidelines, these grant programs must place a substantial emphasis on both abstinence and contraception education. They also support young people who are pregnant or already parents, and there are absolutely no associated clinical or abortion services. All approved curricula have been proven to delay sexual activity and increase condom or contraceptive use for sexually active participants or reduce pregnancy among youth, or both.
Katie Christensen, a North Dakota official for Planned Parenthood, said in a statement that it’s “a shame the Legislature is targeting evidence-based health education that has a proven track record of improving health.” She and her colleagues are “proud to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education to participants with parental permission and are deeply disappointed that elected leaders are trying to undermine this important work.”
Statewide, Christensen added, “our programs are in high demand as more parents, youth and educators recognize the importance of quality comprehensive sex education.”
In a recent letter to the Inforum North Dakota news website, Kirsten Bakke Diederich, former chair of the State Board of Higher Education, said the controversial amendment “seeks to punish North Dakota State University for a federal research grant that has been in place for many years because it is highly successful and meaningful for North Dakota adolescents, including New American, Native American, and at-risk teenagers.” These include youth in foster care, youth with HIV and AIDS, victims of human trafficking, and pregnant or youth parents under age 21.
“If state funding for our institutions of higher education can be withdrawn because legislators don’t approve of one research grant (or in this case, one facet of one research grant) the institutions of higher education as we North Dakotans know them — and take such pride in them — will be no more,” Diederich said. SB 2030 is a “harbinger of nightmares to come for higher education in the state … Successful research cannot happen if government interference is but one legislator’s whim away.”