South Dakota education officials are wrestling with how to implement a new law requiring college campuses to support conservative and liberal thought days before it takes effect on Monday.
Kevin V. Schieffer, president of the state’s Board of Regents, balked Wednesday at a lawmaker’s ideas to preserve conservative viewpoints at universities, such as closing diversity offices and asking faculty about their ideologies in hiring interviews.
“You’re the ones who set the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, and we’re trying to do it,” Mr. Schieffer said during a hearing, addressing the bill’s sponsor — state Rep. Sue Peterson, Sioux Falls Republican.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, in March signed the nation’s first “intellectual diversity” bill for colleges and universities.
Under the law, beginning in August, the Board of Regents must submit to the governor and state lawmakers a report detailing how each college is promoting intellectual diversity and describing “any events or occurrences that impeded intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”
Conservative media outlets such as The College Fix and the National Review have praised the law.
But the nuts and bolts of its implementation at South Dakota’s six public universities has been left to the regents.
Ms. Peterson has called for dismantling campus diversity offices, which she criticizes as promoting “safe zone” training and drag shows. She acknowledges that businesses seek employees who can work in “multinational” settings, but she sees a hidden agenda in diversity efforts.
“Separate from that is the ‘social justice warrior’ type of thing that also seems to coast with that perspective in the diversity offices,” Ms. Peterson said.
Regent John W. Bastian asked if gutting diversity offices would leave public universities vulnerable to losing accreditation from national boards.
“Would students see us less welcoming as some other campus on the other side of the border?” said Mr. Bastian.
An earlier draft of the legislation would have required students to pass a American history and government class to earn a degree, as well as pass a multiple-choice citizenship test. Those provisions were jettisoned in the final version.
Support for the legislation gained steam after University of South Dakota law students complained that administrators had infringed their free speech by directing them to change a party from a “Hawaiian” theme to a more generic “beach theme” to avoid stereotyping. A university investigation subsequently found no violation of free speech.
At Wednesday’s regents’ hearing, David Randall, director of research for the National Association of Scholars, mentioned the Hawaiian controversy. He called it an example of an “ever-thickening orthodoxy” of a progressive agenda that limits the open exchange of ideas on campuses.
“If that’s your definition of a problem in South Dakota, I don’t think there’s a problem in South Dakota,” said Mr. Schieffer, the regents’ president, who described himself as a “conservative Republican” who believes college faculty lean to the left.
A Gallup poll last year found 61% of U.S. college students say campus climate deters free speech, up from 54% two years earlier. However, the same poll found that Democrats — not Republicans — were more likely to think climate deters free speech.
In March, President Trump signed an executive order tying federal funding to a college’s upholding of free speech, signaling the importance the issue has become to his political base. How those practices will be implemented remains unclear.
Dale Droge, a biology professor at Dakota State University and a representative of the state’s public college faculty, expressed concern about a professor being punished for refusing to teach about the anti-vaccination movement in a health class.
“These types of witch hunts through syllabi and text and metrics, I don’t see these things as being warranted and have the potential to be greatly abused,” Mr. Droge said.
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