Can university professors speak up?

Differing views over Salt Lake City’s recent proposals to encourage affordable housing construction have led to a conflict over the right of University of Utah professors to speak out on community issues.

The chairman of Yalecrest Neighborhood Council on the city’s East Bank this week filed complaints with the mayor, U. President Taylor Randall, and the director of the school’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, after three teachers made comments on Twitter.

Council leader Janet Hemming claimed organizers of a panel discussion – which took place Thursday night – on what has been described as the city’s affordable housing, were threatened, mocked and vilified by some of the social media posts, one of which she described as ” hate speech” denoted.”

Hemming also said the exchange raises questions about the impartiality of its authors, all of whom serve as advisers to the city on its housing policies.

One of the posters has apologized, while the other two – one of whom is also a member of the city planning commission – have stood firmly behind the appropriateness of their posts and their right to speak out, with one saying Hemming’s allegations smacked of “canceling culture.” “. .”

The controversy offers a sobering glimpse into tensions surrounding the city’s proposals, which come amid a deepening housing crisis with rents and house prices soaring.

It began with a flyer circulated online ahead of Thursday night’s lecture negatively assessing the overlay and its potential impact on neighborhoods long reserved for single-family homes. Among other goals, the draft zoning changes, which will be put to the City Council vote this fall, would encourage new, denser housing construction, such as four-family and backyard homes, in many of those areas.

Among other things, the flyer claimed that the incentives for developers could “permanently transform” these neighborhoods.

Dejan Eskic, senior fellow at the Gardner Institute and associate U. professor of real estate market analysis, responded on social media over the weekend, calling the panel’s supporters “the land-use group’s QAnon” and saying he “could picket outside with megaphone and sign.” “

In her letter to Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Monday, Hemming complained that Eskic had “violated the code of civil discourse by making an offensive, outrageous and abusive allegation” and said organizers had no connection to the far-right conspiracy theory.

In an interview, Hemming worried that the remark might risk “encouraging others to do copycat things. Therein lies the real danger.”

“Meaning of Civil Discourse”

Eskic, whose research helped shape the city’s housing policy, declined to comment on the controversy but has since apologized, according to his boss, Gardner Institute director Natalie Gochnour.

“We have discussed his right as a private individual and a Yalecrest resident to speak his mind,” Gochnour wrote in response to Hemming’s complaint. “We also talked about the importance of civil society discourse.” She added that the comments on his private social media account “do not represent the institutional position of the Gardner Institute.”

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City City Council Chairman Dan Dugan, whose district includes Yalecrest, called Eskic’s comment “inappropriate.”

“It’s sad,” Dugan said, “that we’ve lost the art of civil discourse.”

After Eskic’s post, Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor of urban and metropolitan planning at the U., noted that the list of Yalecrest panelists included no planners — which Hemming described as derisive and disdainful in her complaints.

“His take: you can’t be an expert if you’re not a planner, despite the extensive community planning experience of some of our presenters,” Hemming wrote to Randall.

Rigolon said in an interview that his comment indicated that no one from the city had been invited to Thursday’s discussion and that it was “seemingly a one-sided type of conversation.”

Hemming countered that Yalecrest Neighborhood Council previously invited one of the city’s lead planners, Sara Javoronok, to discuss the overlay.

The Yalecrest guide also referenced a May 6 post by Rigolon on the role of local councils in urban planning and development. The U. professor noted that Seattle cut ties with local councils five years ago “because the city realized these groups were being overrun by NIMBYs and were just there to say ‘no.'”

That, Hemming wrote to Randall and Mendenhall, was “a chilling message” — tantamount to calling for the dismantling of Salt Lake City’s network of 27 community councils and neighborhood groups and suggesting that Rigolon “has the power to eliminate them or… silence their voices.”

“I don’t understand why my speech should be impaired”

Rigolon, who is also a paid city consultant for its ongoing studies on gentrification, said nothing in his remarks called for the abolition of local councils, whose members are not elected.

“The spirit of all of this,” he said, “is that we can’t take what the local councilors say and assume they’re 100% representative of the community.”

He added that his contributions on the subject “reflected fairly widespread knowledge in the planning of science. It is known that there is a problem and it is my job as a public scholar to address these things when I see these problems.”

“It honestly stems from my love for the city and my desire for a fairer public process,” he said, adding that he’s avoided public statements directly about his city’s gentrification work entitled Thriving in Place.

“I’m a taxpayer like you. I live here. I don’t see why my speech should be impaired and theirs should be free,” added Rigolon. “We’re talking about the demolition culture in this country. This feels like an attempt to fire us.”

Hemming later recognized Rigolon’s right to voice his views, “just no childish views and no hate speech”.

In her letters to Mendenhall and Randall, Hemming also criticized a post supporting aspects of the overlay by City Planning Commissioner and U. Professor of Finance and Real Estate Andra Ghent, saying it violated rules about what commissioners can say publicly .

Ghent had once responded to a post by Rigolon, encouraging the public to attend a May hearing on the overlay, saying she was “excited” to discuss it and that she didn’t “believe it went far enough to.” change our zoning create more living space”.

Gent said in an interview she intends to encourage participation in public meetings on housing, noting that the commission has an advisory role to the city council, which has ultimate authority over the overlay. She also denied claims that her post violated rules on ex parte communications. Contributing to a citywide zoning change, she said, “is very different from communicating privately with a developer on a matter before the Planning Commission before it has been heard.”

Referring to her U. colleagues, also criticized by Hemming, Gent said she fully supports freedom of expression for all U. faculties.

“It’s important,” she said, “that universities, especially public ones, share research and expertise with the wider community.”

The mayor’s chief of staff, Rachel Otto, confirmed in an email to Hemming that her complaint has been forwarded to prosecutors for consideration “so that we can appropriately address it with the Planning Commission and our community partners.”

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Can university professors speak up?

Joel McCord

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