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Port: UND hasn't earned the trust to implement a controversial gender inclusion policy

If UND means to implement a fair policy that serves the interests of everyone on campus, and not just serve knee-jerk desires to be in line with the latest political trends, they need to do better than what they've done so far.

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UND President Andrew Armacost
Forum News Service File Photo
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Minot, N.D. — Back in October this column brought to public light a draft gender inclusion policy at the University of North Dakota.

Among other things, the policy would punish students or university employees who intentionally use the wrong pronouns. It would also grant transgender students the right to use all university facilities, including bathrooms and even locker rooms, in keeping with the gender they identify as.

The university has been very quiet about this potential rule change. They allowed for a public comment period on it — it ended a couple of days after my column ran last year — but that came as a surprise to some interests in the state who would have liked to have a say.

"If you had not wrote about it, we probably would not have learned about the proposed policy," Christopher Dodson, executive director for the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told me shortly after that column was published. "A number of students and interested persons missed the official deadline for comments."

The university seems to be paying for that secrecy now. The Catholic Conference's objections to the policy are making headlines, and their arguments have earned agreement from Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski .

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“Compelling speech and forcing ideology on our students, our children and our community is abhorrent,” he wrote in a Facebook post . “Is it possible for a university to focus on academic rigor and preparing our youth to enter the workforce with the skills of adulthood? A sad day for my alma mater.”

Much of the debate around this draft policy — and let's emphasize at this point that it is a draft and not enacted policy yet — will likely focus on transgender issues and free speech. Where do the rights of transgender students to feel included and use university facilities end, and the rights of other students to free speech or religious conscience begin? Don't existing campus policies, and state laws, protect transgender against things like harassment?

Before we get to that debate, we might ask ourselves an even more important question: Do we trust the University of North Dakota to implement this sort of policy?

Their track record on implementing policies around hot-button topics that treat students fairly is not good.

Look at the example of Caleb Warner, a UND student who was accused by another student of rape in December of 2009.

That incident happened when campus sexual assaults were very much in the headlines, and in our politics, nationally. The woman who claimed to be Warner's victim reported the supposed rape on Feb. 9, 2010 . Just a week later, on Feb. 16, Warner was informed by UND that he had been found guilty of the rape by a campus tribunal. He was expelled from the school and banned from campus.

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Yet, by May of that year, the accuser was charged by local law enforcement with “False information or report to law enforcement officers or security officials,” a Class A misdemeanor. Yet it took UND another year and a half before they would exonerate Warner and reinstate him .

The Warner incident became the impetus for new North Dakota law imposing due process requirements on campus tribunals . Warner's mother, Sherry Warner-Seefeld, became a nationally recognized activist fighting these sort of injustices on campus.

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But we have other, more recent examples demonstrating why UND hasn't earned our trust when it comes to these policies.

In 2020, amid the national Black Lives Matter protests, the University of North Dakota persecuted two female student-athletes to placate a star football player. These women, who were members of the volleyball team at the time, had recorded themselves singing a rap song with a racial slur in it.

Not a wise move, but more an act of immaturity than bigotry.

The matter caused a small controversy on campus in February of 2020, but both students remained at the school and on the volleyball team.

Later that year, as the Black Lives Matter protests hit communities across the country, Jaxson Turner, whose on-field play had been drawing attention from the NFL, took to social media to reignite the issue.

The girls, Julia Vetter and Brynn Nieukirk, left the volleyball team, and ultimately the school.

Publicly, UND officials made it seem as though the girls had been disciplined. In truth, these two students were the victims of a harassment campaign from other students that UND officials did nothing to stop.

In both of these instances, UND, in the thrall of the left-wing politics of the moment, failed to protect students on its campus.

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Speaking of which, let's not forget the plight of former UND chief of police Eric Plummer who left the campus after being harassed for his conservative politics by Carla Halgren, the vice president for student affairs.

Now the UND administration wants to implement a policy, motivated by yet another hot-button political issue, that would put students and campus employees in danger of discipline over pronouns, and they're asking us to believe they can implement and enforce this policy fairly.

I'm not so sure we can believe them.

Every student at UND, every human being in every community in America, is owed decent treatment. Transgender students should be protected from harassment and unfair treatment. As to pronouns, people should do their best to use those preferred by a given individual, as a matter of courtesy if nothing else.

That's how I approach it.

Politeness costs us nothing and can mean everything in the right circumstances.

But UND already has policies protecting people on campus from harassment, they don't have a track record demonstrating that they can enforce a policy on pronouns fairly, and none of this addresses the question of opening up sensitive areas like locker rooms to whatever gender a person might identify as.

If UND means to implement a fair policy that serves the interests of everyone on campus, and not just serve knee-jerk desires to be in line with the latest political trends, they need to do better than what they've done so far.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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