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UND prof frustrated by rejected DAPL events rethinking departure

Mark Trahant

A day after his disappointment in UND ricocheted across social media, a journalism professor says he's now re-evaluating whether he'll leave his post.

Mark Trahant, who holds an endowed professorship in UND's communications department, blasted UND in a Thursday Facebook post, calling himself "disappointed and disgusted that the university is not an institutional leader in this state." In the last two years, he wrote, two separate events that he'd suggested include discussions on the Dakota Access Pipeline were scuttled. After the rejection of the second, he wrote, "I learned about senior administration fears that the Legislature might retaliate."

But on Friday, Trahant said in a phone interview that he had spoken with leaders in the College of Arts and Sciences and now is being asked to coordinate a lecture that treats the DAPL protests "as a focal point."

"I was more concerned about the role of the university in public discourse. This is clearly a step that the university cares about public discourse, so I'm delighted to make it happen," said Trahant, who is Native American himself and is a member of the Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. "The details aren't worked out, but I think it's a great step and we'll go from there."

Trahant's comments de-escalate a tense exchange over Native American interests that saw UND spokesman Peter Johnson issue a lengthy Friday statement. Johnson denied the university had been intimidated by the Legislature—or that the Legislature had ever attempted to do so.

Johnson pointed out that UND President Mark Kennedy helped found the university's "Eye of the Hawk" lecture series, which evaluates ideas "without the artifice of political boundaries," and said the North Dakota University System Fine Arts and Humanities Summit hosted a DAPL event in 2016.

"To be clear: President Kennedy didn't know about, hadn't heard anything about, Mark Trahant's proposed events until the question was raised by media Thursday," Johnson said in the statement. "President Kennedy regrets that there is any perception that the university would have prevented a faculty-led activity from taking place based on perceived fears of legislative response. In fact, although President Kennedy still likely doesn't know exactly what Mark Trahant had in mind ... (he) does like the idea of an event that takes a balanced look at the DAPL issue."

Reached with news of Trahant's accusations of political influence, University Senate chairwoman Nancy Vogeltanz-Holm said she "strongly believe(s) UND faculty teaching and research is supported and protected by the principles of academic freedom."

Asked to elaborate on the allegation, Trahant declined.

"What I said I stand by, but I don't want to go into details," he said. "The president's office was saying that this is all news to them—they didn't know any of this. I'll just say that's good enough for me."

Trahant said he's still not sure if he'll return to the university, noting further concerns about the number of Native American students in the communications program and, to a much lesser extent, disagreements about travel costs.

If Trahant departs, he said it would occur at the end of his agreement to serve in his endowed professorship in May 2018.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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