Dear Commons Community,
New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, had a piece today reviewing an Idaho Legislature’s bill that attempts to restrict the teaching of critical race theory in its public colleges. Using budget cuts as an intimidation, the bill bans state colleges and universities from using any appropriated funds to “support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus,” and requires schools to report all social justice spending to the Legislature. Below is an excerpt.
Academic freedom anyone!
“…the claim that the right’s war on critical race theory doesn’t threaten academic freedom is also wrong. Consider what just happened in Idaho, where last week Boise State University suspended dozens of classes, online and in person, dealing with different aspects of diversity. This week, they were reinstated, but online only and “asynchronously,” without any live discussions.
These suspensions happened the day before the Idaho State Senate voted to cut $409,000 from the school’s budget, an amount meant to reflect what Boise State spends on social justice programs. The budget bill also banned state colleges and universities from using any appropriated funds to “support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus,” and requires schools to report all social justice spending to the Legislature. The Idaho Statesman quoted one lawmaker saying of schools, “They’re going to get the message.”
Some of the facts behind the class suspensions are unclear. In an email to the campus, university leaders described “a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.” An English professor at the university tweeted that the allegation concerned a taped Zoom discussion of white privilege that had been handed over to the Legislature, but so far it hasn’t emerged publicly. (The tweets have since been deleted.)
It’s obviously impossible to evaluate the allegations without knowing what they are. If a student was humiliated, that’s serious and should be addressed. But it’s hard to see how whatever happened implicated 52 different classes, and the political pressure the university is under is undeniable.
The $409,000 taken from Boise State’s budget was a compromise; other conservative lawmakers wanted to cut far more. Ron Nate, a member of Idaho’s House of Representatives, this month called for millions of dollars in cuts to education funding targeting “social justice programming and critical race theory.” At a January hearing, he subjected Boise State University’s president, Marlene Tromp, to McCarthyite questioning over statements that some of the school’s departments issued supporting Black Lives Matter.
“Does B.S.U. plan to continue diverting university resources to this Marxist cause and encouraging students to consume more B.L.M. content?” he asked. He told her that her school’s funding was in jeopardy: “Many legislators, frustrated with B.S.U., want to defund the social justice agenda by reducing higher education spending.”
What’s happening in Idaho is not unique. All over the country, state legislators are trying to curtail teaching about racism and sexism, in universities as well as elementary schools.
“We’ve seen a spate of these bills across the country, and some of them are more concerning than others,” said Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group devoted to academic freedom. “It’s comparable, I think, to what happened in Hungary, where the government there cracked down on, or banished essentially, the teaching of gender studies.”
Crusading against a relatively obscure academic discipline, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary turned it into a proxy for modernity itself.
“Integral to almost all the attacks is the implication that gender studies itself is not an academic discipline, but something larger and more mendacious,” Eliza Apperly wrote in The Atlantic. Relatively powerless academics were demonized as dangerous subversives.
There’s a similar inversion in the campaign against critical race theory. The right likes to pretend that social justice-inflected academic disciplines are full of ideological commissars browbeating conservative students. But particularly in conservative places like Idaho, it’s the professors, many of them untenured, who feel intimidated.
“With the climate as it is, I wouldn’t doubt that folks are starting to look over their shoulder,” said Melissa Wintrow, who served as director of the women’s center at Boise State before becoming a state senator.
When it comes to the campaign against critical race theory, the fear is part of the point.”