PragerU speaker sparks controversy and discourse at Winona State


PragerU representive Amala Ekpunobi came to speak at Winona State University on Oct. 14. Ekpunobi was invited on behalf of the Winona State College Republicans club and discussed specifically the state of higher education, among other topics.

Olivia Prondzinski, News Reporter

Campus has been steeped in controversy the past few weeks as many students expressed their concerns about PragerU’s podcaster and influencer, Amala Ekpunobi, who visited Winona State University’s campus on October 14.

Despite its namesake, Prager University is not in fact a university, but a 501(c)(3) nonprofit offering free content on culture, media and education through a conservative lens. According to their website, “PragerU helps people of all ages think and live better.”

When Ekpunobi visited Winona State University in September 2021 some students decided to practice their first amendment right to protest the speaker. Before the event started Ekpunobi went out to the protesters and invited them into the event. During this encounter Ekpunobi was actually live streaming and tried her best to not show any faces but stated where the students were located to her viewers. This left many of the protesters shaken up by the hate or violence this may bring.

On Oct. 6, 2022, a letter was sent to the editor of The Winonan from the Winona State University Faculty Association (WSUFA) stating Ekpunobi’s speech from last year included comments that expressed a derogatory attitude towards people with trans and non-binary identities, denials of the existence of institutional or systematic racism, and rejections of the notion that sexism against women is still a problem in U.S. society. WSUFA wrote those assertions directly contradict the associations position regarding equity and inclusion. Classes were not cancelled on the day of Ekpunobi’s speech, but WSUFA asked the campus to stand in solidarity with any students or staff who expressed a desire not to be on campus that day.

WSU President, Scott Olson, sent an email on Oct. 10, stating the university values free speech and open discourse. Olson reminded the campus occasionally speakers may challenge core values. The email stated there are several ways to respond to speech we don’t like, for example, peacefully protesting, boycotting or ignoring the speaker.

“What we do not want to do, as members of a community that values equity, inclusion, and civility, is to incite or encourage hatred or hateful actions. There is a line we must protect, not only for democracy to function, but for our community to feel safe,” Olson wrote.

The Winona State University College Democrats members’ have wished to be granted anonymity and wrote this statement for The Winonan.

“Winona State University College Democrats is against all forms of bigotry and hatred. For this reason, WSU College Democrats does not support PragerU attending Winona State University. WSU College Democrats admires the faculty that has stood with students during this time. We acknowledge the legal implications of the university respecting the first amendment. However, students at WSU shared with administration and faculty last year that they felt unsafe. These concerns obviously were not important enough to administration to take action. We as students are disappointed in our administration, that has so far made no effort to relieve us of our concerns this year; and that has lately failed at making us feel safe at our own university.  Winona State University is a place where each student should feel valued and respected in their identity and as a student. WSU College Democrats stands in solidarity with communities such as BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized peoples. As a club, we will not be attending the event and instead placing our focus on electing candidates that can enact change on local and federal levels to push for more access and equity in our world,” WSU Democrats wrote.

The WSU Democrats decided to not protest Ekpunobi this year. WSU Democrats spoke to advisors and professors across campus expressing that students felt unsafe among PragerU’s presence.

“We aren’t going to put them in that circumstance where people, not only on this campus, but people from the community come to listen to this speaker where they could get hurt,” WSU Democrats said. They said during this time they want to focus on outreach for their club.

“She’s a good speaker, she’s passionate about what she talks about, but when you confront her and say hey, this is an issue you stand by that I don’t agree with, and I did that, she doesn’t listen, she’s not willing to reason with you at all,” WSU Democrat said.

Brynn Schultz, a fourth-year at Winona State, attended multiple meetings last year with President Olson to express they did not feel safe with PragerU returning to campus.

“I understand freedom of speech, I get that, I want to hear other opinions, but not from a propaganda site, it’s just rhetoric that goes against not only my community, but transgender people across the U.S.,” Schultz said, “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have a speaker for the republican club, I just wish they choose another one, like Jeremy Miller, he’s a local representative.”

The Winona State College Republicans brought Ekpunobi back this year with the help of a donor that wishes to remain anonymous. The club had a lot of demands from community and club members to bring Ekpunobi back.

Jason Hoeft (left) and Madeline Hoppenrath (right) serve as the Co-Presidents of Winona State College Republicans club. (Jiovani Bermudez)

“[This year] she is talking a little bit about politics and the education system and how that affects education now, what changes could possibly be made,” Madeline Hoppenrath, Co-President of Winona State College Republicans, said. “She’ll definitely be focusing on higher education, some of the biases that come out sometimes just seeing how that affects people as they go through college.”

When asked about the controversy on campus, the Winona State College Republicans explained that everyone has their right to free speech and they respect it.

“The purpose of our club is to provide a safe environment for individuals of all beliefs, to engage in civil discussion and state their beliefs. It is open for all students, and everyone is welcome,” Jason Hoeft, Co-President of Winona State College Republicans, said.

A main concern for many students was the belief that this PragerU speech could be categorized as hate speech. According to Oxford Languages, hate speech is defined by “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.”

On the day of the event, there were no protests at Somsen Hall. In the opening statement the Winona State College Republicans clearly stated there was zero tolerance for derogatory or offensive comments.

“Speech isn’t violent,” Ekpunobi said in her opening statement. Ekpunobi described the WSUFA as cowardly for their letter to the editor and thanked the faculty that did support her being on campus.

Ekpunobi stated she was raised by her radical leftist mother and was a left activist herself. Ekpunobi explained her beliefs changed due to unanswered questions, grew tired of being narrated as a victim, was told she did not know how oppressed she was, thought the feminist ideas she subscribed to were harmful to women and wanted to face the research.

Ekpunobi explained that she means no disrespect to transgender or non-binary people but questions the ideology when it comes to children’s spaces.

“Gender confusion is uncomfortable, and I’m thankful I have never experienced it,” Ekpunobi said.

Ekpunobi reminded the audience that as long as race and sex exist, racism and sexism will exist. The speaker acknowledged the past hardships of the people of color in America but does not believe in systematic or institutional racism.

“These problems started in academia, and end in academia,” Ekpunobi ended her speech with. Ekpunobi was met with a standing ovation by most but not all of the audience.

It was then time for the Q&A session. Anyone in the audience was able to ask Ekpunobi a question.

The first question asked about the black maternal mortality rate in America. Ekpunobi explained the leading black maternal mortality cause in America is due to homicide.

“We ignore what could be a class issue, not a racism issue,” Ekpunobi said. Ekpunobi explained that this jump to conclusions brings more harm to the black community. The speaker stated she was not discounting racism as a reason.

An audience member proceeded to ask Ekpunobi on her thoughts about handling discussions of sexual orientation with children.

Ekpunobi contributed black maternal mortality to a class issue rather than racism. The speaker acknowledged the past hardships of the people of color in America but does not believe in systematic or institutional racism. (Jiovani Bermudez)

“We should armor our own children with what is real, and what is not,” Ekpunobi said, “I’m not saying we need to teach kids they need to be homosexual.”

One of the final audience members of the night stated he was told he would have trouble getting into medical school because he is a white male. Ekpunobi responded by saying she believes there is an active discrimination against white people and that schools should judge fairly based on a student’s school performance.

When the Q&A session was over, the Winona State College Republican Co-Presidents claimed it was the largest on-campus event for the third semester in a row. At the end of the night many audience members stuck around to continue the discussion.