UND professor Mark Trahant is leaving the university at the end of the academic year-but not before hosting a spring conference devoted to exploring the ways in which the stories of the Standing Rock protests spread across the internet.
Trahant's plans for the event are coalescing after a brief, tense discussion of academic freedom that made national news last week after the Charles R. Johnson endowed professor of journalism posted a strongly worded announcement of his intent to walk away from the classroom this May at the end of his contract term. The professor, a longtime journalist and member of Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock tribe, called himself "disappointed and disgusted that the university is not an institutional leader in the this state," citing as examples claims that two earlier versions of his conference were killed at the behest of senior university administrators who feared political backlash from hosting the events.
Soon after that initial post hit the web, UND leaders acted quickly to make their own statements of support for academic freedom. That turnaround proved enough for Trahant, who returned to social media to post that he was satisfied with UND's denial that concerns of political retaliation had ever affected campus content.
Emails obtained by the Herald show that leadership in the College of Arts and Sciences was initially supportive of Trahant's efforts to organize events for the spring semesters of 2017 and 2018. As far as the emails go, Trahant says digital communication mostly outlined excitement about the projects, "but nothing that says 'Let's not do this.' "
"The buildup is there, but not the crescendo," he said, adding that he believed he was informed in a meeting that the 2017 event was a no-go.
The first event were intended to sprout from the framework of the Hagerty Lecture, a guest lecture series funded by an endowment provided by the Herald. Trahant said the planning of the lecture fell to him sometime after its 2016 iteration. His first choice of speaker for the February event was Roxana Saberi, a freelance journalist and former Miss North Dakota pageant winner who spent more than 100 days imprisoned in Iran after being accused of espionage there. That plan didn't work out though, as Saberi's asking rate proved too high for the funds given by the Hagerty endowment. After Saberi fell through, Debbie Storrs, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, suggested putting the lecture on hold for 2017 and regrouping for the next year's event. On Dec. 16, 2016, Trahant offered an alternative-bringing in journalist Jenni Monet to discuss what was then ongoing coverage of the protests at Standing Rock.
Monet, a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo tribe, had embedded in Cannon Ball, N.D., to cover the protests from the scene. Her speaking fee was $1,000 plus expenses, and Trahant believed she'd be a serious draw for student and media interest alike. As the event pivoted, Storrs asked for some time to make a decision after the winter holiday break.
By Jan. 15, 2017, Storrs seemed to have settled on bringing Monet to campus. The dean sent an email to UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo and spokesman Peter Johnson to get their input.
"We are planning to invite Jenni Monet to be our Hagerty Lecturer in late February," wrote Storrs, briefly describing Monet's credentials. "Given the sensitivity around this topic, please let me know if (UND President Mark Kennedy) has any concerns. I think it is important to support academic freedom and this is the biggest news in North Dakota. A public lecture will draw significant numbers of community members and students."
Two days later, DiLorenzo returned the message, writing that he was returning by air to Grand Forks from Minneapolis and could discuss the issue at a later time. The contents of that discussion are not within the range of documents obtained by the Herald.
Storrs said in an interview that she remembered messaging DiLorenzo but "honestly didn't recall" having a meeting with him. However, she says any reservations about the 2017 Hagerty Lecture event were, and still are, rooted more in concerns about the event's long-term viability than anything else.
"I'm sure we had a conversation, but the conversation is really broader than who that person is," she said. "It's also about the sustainability of the Hagerty Lecture, given its low attendance."
Regardless of the scope of the conversation, by Jan. 23, 2017, Pasch had emailed an Arts and Sciences events coordinator to share his understanding that "we will be taking a hiatus" on the lecture given issues with budgeting and "uncertainty" regarding the event's speaker.
Storrs said the Hagerty Lecture doesn't have the same draw to the community as it once had, a point also backed up by Trahant. With its dwindling audiences paired against reduced university budgets and smaller teams of staff to organize the event, Storrs said she's unsure of the annual lecture's long-term future.
Aside from that, she was enthusiastic of Trahant's pitch earlier this fall about a 2018 digital seminar themed partly around the story of the protests at Standing Rock. That second idea was a new concept that would have been bigger than Hagerty Lecture, a "Dakota Digital conference" that Trahant imagined as a "three-day tech festival, teach-in" devoted to workshops and keynote speeches. Trahant said the first day would have covered Standing Rock.
"I love the idea," replied Storrs in an Oct. 2, 2017 email.
Trahant said that more robust event-which he imagined as a kind of technology-heavy, North Dakota version of the "South by Southwest" media festival of Austin, Texas-also failed to pan out, a conclusion he acknowledges was probably guided in part by budgetary concerns beside any political sensitivities.
That might have been the end of the story, but Trahant soon found himself with a third attempt after his late-October social media post quickly gathered publicity and pushed the lecture event into the spotlight. He's now in the process of sketching out a daylong, early spring seminar around the original Hagerty Lecture format to cover the "pluses and minuses of what happened at Standing Rock and what we can learn from it."
The plans are still coming together, but he's already secured Monet as keynote speaker. He's also hoping to bring in a representative of the Smithsonian Museum to discuss the protests in a historical context and, if all goes as planned, will have panel discussions made up of journalists, photographers and government officials, each invited to share their perspectives on the protests and how they were broadcast on both traditional and social media. That latter category will be a major theme of the seminar, which, true to concept, will be live-streamed for digital attendees.
Trahant still believes the larger digital conference is a good idea and should someday be revisited by UND. But, as he looks back at the events of the past week, he's content with the event at hand-and with the outcome of a social media post he says went unintentionally viral.
"Anything that provokes discourse, I'm for," said Trahant. "As uncomfortable as it was for a few days, the end result is good."