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OTHER VOICES: Nebraska college discrimination policy dispute sends wrong message

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For as much as is made about Nebraska's need to attract and retain workers, too many public officials and prominent groups in the state seem unwilling to accommodate the more diverse generation that can help turn the tide on these trends.

At their Nov. 11 meeting in Wayne, trustees for the Nebraska State College System adopted policies that further clarified the kinds of discrimination prohibited at its member institutions and asked employees to respect the chosen name and gender identity of staff at its campuses in Peru, Wayne and Chadron.

The former was in response to a change in state law; the latter brings Nebraska’s state colleges in line with its public universities, not to federal law, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that included gender identity as a protected class nationwide.

Neither of these things should be controversial on their own, save for the fact everything is now controversial to certain segments of society. However, citing the First Amendment as a reason for opposition doesn’t make sense here.

One argument being made against the trustees’ vote is that extending protections to include gender identity somehow infringes upon free-speech rights of students and staff.

But our first freedom cuts both ways, making the argument paradoxical, at best.

Opponents of the measure said nothing about the rights to free expression also guaranteed to people in the newly protected classes, including those who may have a gender identity that doesn’t line up with their biological sex. And their rights matter, too.

Such actions are particularly disheartening in a state whose slogan is "Equality before the law" and at institutions of higher learning designed to make advanced education more accessible to Nebraskans -- and that motto doesn't apply more to some Nebraskans and less to others.

If Nebraska faces this much opposition to reach even the constitutionally guaranteed minimum standards of treatment, there is little hope for the state as it aims to tackle its biggest long-term challenges to growth and shaking off misconceptions.

Workforce development, recruiting of college-educated employees, continuing the state's population growth -- all of these collide on Nebraska's college campuses. Yet, too many leaders are focused on ostracizing people from different backgrounds.

The status quo has gotten us to where we are today -- more jobs than people to fill them, all at a time where a wave of retirements among baby boomers threatens to leave the state shorthanded in many key industries.

Perhaps that’s what’s so frustrating about the opposition to the newly adopted policies at Nebraska state colleges, necessity of the changes to comply with the law aside: It's embarrassingly shortsighted.

“We’re seeing need right now in our community,” he says, “at all levels. Children, adults, families, they are all experiencing need right now. Even the nonprofits trying to help them are experiencing need.”

The right approach to help grow Nebraska is to be welcoming and accommodating to all, rather than telling certain segments of the population that Nebraska isn't for them.


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