In mid-September, the national controversy surrounding abortion threw University of Idaho President C. Scott Green into damage control.
Green blasted one familiar foe: critics of public higher education, who he again labeled “conflict entrepreneurs.” And he called out an unlikely adversary: a New York City high school student.
The abortion issue at the U of I: A timeline
June 24: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization throws the question of abortion access back to the states.
Aug. 29: New York City high school student Talia Kantor Lieber writes an online article surveying 61 colleges and universities, asking if they would cover a student’s travel expenses for an abortion. The University of Idaho is listed among only five schools that might cover such expenses.
Sept. 14: Responding to Lieber’s article, and a message circulating among legislators, U of I President C. Scott Green sends a mass email to lawmakers, denying that the university would cover a student’s abortion-related expenses.
Sept. 23: In an internal memo, the U of I’s legal team cautions university employees against counseling students on abortion and reproductive options, saying that might violate a strict state anti-abortion law.
Oct. 4: President Biden condemns the memo from U of I’s legal counsel, asking, “What century are we in?”
Oct. 11: Idaho EdNews requests staff emails pertaining to the Sept. 23 memo; the U of I seeks $654.38 to cover costs.
Jan. 31: Responding to a revised and narrower Idaho EdNews request for staff emails, the U of I asks for $803.83 to cover costs.
In a Sept. 14 memo to legislators, Green vehemently denied that the university would use public money to pay student travel expenses for an abortion. He accused the student journalist of writing an inaccurate article about a student emergency fund — and he accused U of I’s critics of capitalizing on the distortions for political gain.
“Abortion is arguably the most emotional and divisive issue in the country today and we would expect the conflict entrepreneurs to try to monetize it,” Green wrote in the memo, obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request. “We appreciate those who brought this to our attention so that we could address it head on.”
By the end of September, the U of I had become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate. An internal memo cautioned university employees against counseling students on abortion and reproductive options, for fear of violating a strict state anti-abortion law covering all public agencies. The White House swiftly weighed in — criticizing both the state law and the U of I memo.
But before any of that happened, the U of I found itself embroiled in another abortion controversy, one that received less national attention. But this flareup prompted Green’s mass email to legislators — an attempt to reassure the elected officials who ultimately vote to approve, or cut, higher education budgets.
The Meteor article
After the Supreme Court’s June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling threw the abortion question back to the states — and threw the court’s previous Roe v. Wade decision into limbo — New York City high school student Talia Kantor Lieber started doing research.
She asked 61 colleges and universities if they would pay a student’s travel expenses for an abortion.
She reported that only five schools even hinted at the possibility, the U of I being among them. The U of I wouldn’t specifically cover such travel expenses, according to an unnamed university spokesperson, but a student could tap into a student emergency fund.
“These small allocations of donated dollars (typically a couple hundred dollars) are given out without verification of need or use,” the spokesperson said, according to Lieber’s report. “While it is possible a student could use it for (abortion-related travel), the university does not get involved in the medical decisions of our students.”
Lieber’s article appeared on Aug. 29 on the Meteor, a website that says it “amplifies the voices of women — especially those underrepresented in traditional media —through storytelling, journalism and art.”
In his memo to lawmakers, Green labeled the article a “false narrative.”
“(Lieber) implied that the U of I has a student emergency fund — normally used for food, shelter or medical emergencies — that could, unbeknownst to the university, be used for abortion services since it is illegal for us to ask a student about their medical condition,” Green wrote.
Spokeswoman Jodi Walker said she reached out to Lieber, seeking a correction. In an email Tuesday, she said Lieber’s reporting was neither “sound” nor “reputable.”
The Meteor stands by Lieber’s story.
“As our piece says, we categorized as a ‘yes’ any school with a fund that would allow for emergency travel, even if the school itself stopped short of explicit support of abortion travel or made clear that its policy is not to inquire about how the funds are used,” a spokesperson for the Meteor told Idaho EdNews. “The University of Idaho fell into the latter category.”
It didn’t take long for the U of I to get wind of backlash from the Meteor article.
“Did you hear about this? U of I paying abortion travel expenses?” said a message that circulated among some legislators — a message that prompted Green’s memo to legislators.
Through the use of “conflict entrepreneurs,” a code phrase of sorts, Green broadly hinted at the origin of the message. Green has used the phrase to describe critics such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative lobbying group with a core of hardline allies in the Legislature, and an open contempt for anything resembling a social justice agenda on campus.
But the exact source of the message that circulated among legislators is unclear. In an email to Idaho EdNews, Walker said she wasn’t sure of the message’s origin, “and I don’t think anyone else here does, either.” Walker received a copy through Caroline Nilsson Troy, a former legislator hired last year as a university lobbyist.
The message seemed to leave no digital footprints. Internet and Twitter searches of its key phrases came up empty — or linked back to the Meteor article.
A second opinion
The U of I asked Hawley Troxell, a Boise law firm, to look into the abortion travel question — as part of a larger independent investigation into diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The firm’s Dec. 27 report to Green offers a more detailed explanation of how the U of I’s Bruce and Kathy Pitman Emergency Fund works — and rejects the idea that the fund could be used for abortion-related expenditures.
“Based upon our investigation, we conclude that no money was awarded to a student for an abortion, and that a student would not be able to use such funding to obtain an abortion,” Hawley Troxell said in its report. “While the emergency money is not tracked after it is given to a student, there is an application process for the emergency funds that involves a comprehensive review by UI to determine whether or not to award the funds. There was no evidence indicating that any funds have been distributed to a student for an abortion nor any evidence suggesting UI would do so if requested.”
The latest Hawley Troxell report covered a broad range of topics — not just abortion. Like a previous report from the law firm, this latest investigation says the U of I’s diversity and inclusion programs “do not rise to any level of impropriety.”
An abortion memo goes national
Just weeks after the Meteor story — and the blowback from its claims about the U of I — the university’s attorneys sent a stern warning to all employees. Counseling students on reproductive options, including abortion, could cost an employee his or her job, or lead to criminal prosecution. The reason: The 2021 “No Public Funds for Abortion Act” bans any public employee from making an abortion referral, or counseling “in favor of abortion.”
It didn’t take long for the Sept. 23 memo to go national. On Oct. 4, President Biden weighed in.
“They told university staff they could get in trouble just for talking or telling students about birth control,” Biden said during a meeting of the White House Reproductive Rights Task Force. “Folks, what century are we in?”
For several months, Idaho EdNews has sought more information on the Sept. 23 abortion memo — and how it came about.
On Oct. 11, Idaho EdNews made its first request for email records pertaining to the memo. The university responded by requesting a $654.38 charge, and has been working with EdNews to narrow down the request.
EdNews submitted a subsequent request based on the university’s guidance, adding search parameters such as “abortion,” “contraceptives,” “birth control,” and “House Bill 220,” which refers to the 2021 No Public Funds for Abortion Act. EdNews also narrowed the request to several university departments — including the offices of the president, provost and executive vice president; the campus women’s center; and governmental relations staff.
On Jan. 31, the university re-estimated the cost of the request at $803.83. EdNews has not yet paid the charge, and has not received any of the requested materials.
But it is clear that the university attorneys’ message to staff has the full support of Green, who in 2019 left an executive’s position with an international law firm to return to his alma mater as president. In his Sept. 14 memo to lawmakers, Green foreshadows the message that would go to university staff nine days later.
“Let me be clear, it is and always has been the policy of the U of I to abide by all state laws in word and spirit,” Green wrote. “Our general counsel has made the details of the law clear to our employees, that they cannot counsel a student or employee about abortion or refer them to abortion providers and that any deviation exposes an individual to criminal prosecution.”