State Politics

Boise State students say diversity is the ‘Idaho way’ after letter. Critics say it threatens unity

With Boise State’s diversity and inclusion programs under fire, students and alumni are pushing back on Idaho Republican claims that specialized events segregate students with no benefit to academic performance.

Some students, like sophomore Ryann Banks, say the university’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion programs were part of the reason why they stayed and succeeded at Boise State. About 2% of Boise State students are black, like Banks, and she said it was hard to feel like she had anything to contribute to the larger school community.

That changed when she joined the Black Student Association. When she attended a special graduation celebration for black students later in May, the grads wearing Kente cloths and celebrating each other’s accomplishments made her feel like her community had created something special for themselves.

“They looked at me as an individual and said you can do more,” Banks said. “There wasn’t anyone else who said that to me. I didn’t feel supported by Boise State, but when I found my community, I was able to thrive in ways I never thought possible.”

An Idaho Falls state representative’s letter to new Boise State President Marlene Tromp last week ignited a firestorm of debate, feedback and criticism across the state. The letter, signed by 28 Idaho Republican legislators, called on Tromp to cease university support for diversity and inclusion activities. They said those kinds of activities drove up tuition costs and weren’t the “Idaho way.”

“This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students,” wrote Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls. “These initiatives by nature highlight differences and suggest that certain groups are treated unequally now — and that BSU should redress these grievances.”

The letter singled out a wide range of programs mentioned in a June 4 letter from Boise State interim president Martin Shimpf, claiming programs like “Black Graduation,” a new Native American student liaison and a food pantry for food-insecure Boise State students either segregated students or contributed to rising tuition costs.

What will happen during the Legislative session?

Ehardt said she isn’t currently considering attempts to defund Boise State’s diversity programs through the appropriations process during the 2020 Legislative session, but she said she couldn’t speak for other lawmakers. Boise State was singled out because of Schimpf’s “attention-grabbing” newsletter, Ehardt said. While the other state institutions were copied on her original letter, she wasn’t planning to begin similar examinations of their programs.

“It raised the question: What are we doing, what are we funding, and what is the purpose of our public institutions?” Ehardt said. “This was more of a start of questioning for all of us.”

Last week, Tromp said she looked forward to her discussion with Ehardt. They met Tuesday.

“Political divisions in our country often make these conversations very difficult and can even cause harm,” Tromp said in a prepared statement provided to the Statesman. “I believe we can have a meaningful dialogue that underscores our common commitment to the well-being of our students and to the future of the state.”

Banks, the incoming vice-president of the Black Student Association at Boise State, said criticism of Boise State’s inclusivity and equality efforts didn’t account for the support it provides students who struggle to feel welcome on campus, to the detriment of their academic success.

Events like “Black Graduation,” Banks said, have been open to anyone to attend since the first ceremony in spring 2018. The graduations honor the achievements of Boise State’s black graduates, who also walk during the main commencement ceremony. In addition to “Rainbow Graduation,” which celebrates the achievements of LGBTQ students, Boise State’s 2019 commencement event website lists additional graduation events for the School of Nursing, international students and first-generation college students. Anyone can attend these events.

“It’s not segregation because everyone is invited,” Banks said. “I would like to know if they attended any of these events so they can deem them exclusionary. They are meant to celebrate us.”

Reactions across the Gem State

Ehardt’s criticisms prompted a response from Idaho’s Joint Democratic Caucus, who congratulated Tromp for her “commitment to championing diversity at Boise State University” and encouraged her to continue programs they say benefit all Idahoans.

Ten days after Ehardt publicized her letter, the Idaho State Board of Education had not publicly commented on whether it supports the continuation of the diversity programs — but did provide a written statement to the Statesman.

“I believe providing access and opportunity at all of Idaho’s institutions of higher learning are core Idaho values, which also include hard work and respect,” said Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education. “Our institutions devote much time and energy to support all students and to create a positive experience focused on student success before and after graduation.”

University of Idaho President Scott Green, like Tromp and Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee, is new to his leadership role at the university. Green told the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board on Tuesday that diversity is an issue that the new university presidents across the state could find common ground on and work together on in the future.

“My view is this: From where I sit, we still have a lot of work to do in this country on diversity and inclusion,” he said.

Green said the university’s role and mission is to ensure everyone feels safe and included on campus and in the Moscow community. He said UI will continue to support its inclusion and diversity programs.

Banks said she and other Boise State students have been writing emails to the Republican legislators — including Ehardt.

“I am among the many students, faculty, and surrounding community that firmly disagree with your stance on removing programs at Boise State University that promote Diversity and Inclusion and serve underrepresented students,” Banks wrote in a July 15 email to Ehardt, which she shared with the Idaho Statesman. “... because of this firm disagreement, students of Boise State University and community members are organizing.”

Banks and two other students organized a rally Saturday at noon at the Idaho Statehouse to signal support for Boise State’s diversity, inclusion and equality efforts. Boise State student body president Kaleb Smith, who will speak at the rally, said he was disappointed by the letter’s criticisms of programs he said ultimately benefited all students.

“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue,” Smith said. “Programs and initiatives like this are built to help everyone succeed.”

Critics say diversity distracts from student unity

Ehardt told the Idaho Statesman that her criticisms come from a place of deep concern and experience. She coached Division I women’s basketball for more than a decade, where she said she worked hard to unify and support diverse groups of student athletes.

“We fought for years to create unity and then all of a sudden it feels like — again, from my paradigm and perspective — that what we’re doing is we’re going back to policies that separate and segregate,” Ehardt said. “That’s really difficult for me to fathom because of everything I’ve done to promote it the other way, to be inclusive of all students and all backgrounds.”

Ehardt said when she wrote the letter, she began reaching out to House leadership and the education committee, calling members personally to discuss the issue with them. Ehardt said she also notified House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, about her plans for the letter. He did not respond to Idaho Statesman’s requests for comment.

Other members of Republican leadership signed the letter, including House Majority Leader Mike Moyle (R-Star), Jason Monks (R-Nampa) and half of the House Education Committee, of which Ehardt is a member.

“For many of us, the ‘Idaho Way’ means things that are inherent to our tradition of faith, family and freedom,” Ehardt said. “It means that we are rewarded for the merits of our labor, for hard work. That we believe in being fair and we believe in those principals that are longstanding and stood the test of time.”

Ehardt said she was encouraged by Tromp’s willingness to open a dialogue.

Ehardt said the timing of her letter and the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s initial criticism of the programs was coincidental, although she did reach out to the foundation for an analysis of Boise State’s tuition increases over the years. Both were responding to former Boise State president Martin Schimpf’s June newsletter, Ehardt and Idaho Freedom Foundation representatives said.

“What I did, I did because it was important to me,” Ehardt said. “I called the legislators. I called the 28 that signed on.”

Fred Birnbaum, the vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said his organization’s similar criticism came from a place of ongoing concern over programs from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion they believed threatened the preservation of diversity of the thought and freedom of speech on Boise State’s campus.

“The notion that something labeled a center for diversity and inclusion — based on a history of how that has been implemented on other campuses and even on Boise State thus far — would suggest to us it’s not really something that should be reformed,” Birnbaum said. “They should move away from that.”

Rising tuition costs were also one of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s concerns, and Birnbaum took issue with the Idaho Joint Democratic Caucus’s claim higher tuition was because the Legislature neglected to increase funding for Boise State and other schools. Boise State’s funding from the General Fund has increased 5.7% each year, according to Idaho Freedom Foundation’s analysis, rising from $67.6 million for fiscal year 2012 to $99.8 million for fiscal year 2019.

Do Powwows and Black Graduation help academic performance?

Current and past Boise State students say these programs, even the ones not directly tied to academic performance, are key to attracting and retaining students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups. It’s also important in light of recent national events — or even ones a little closer to home.

The Arbiter, Boise State’s student newspaper, highlighted student frustration with the way housing staff and the school’s administration handled racism in student dorms. In November 2018, a resident director discovered dorm decorations were vandalized with the swastikas, the ‘N’-word and the phrase “burn everyone but whites,” the Arbiter reported.

Tai Simpson, an alum from the Nez Perce Idaho nation, said her experience at Boise State significantly improved when she got involved with the Intertribal Native Council, which plans the Seven Arrows Powwow at Boise State every year.

“Being a student at Boise State University, being a student of color, being a female student of color, can lend itself to feeling very isolated or feeling very lonely and feeling very overwhelmed — as if I’m the only one enduring some of the things I had to endure,” Simpson said. “Being part of Intertribal Native Council and being able to rely on the Multicultural Student Services, I found other voices and other stories. I found comrades that were enduring very similar struggles, that helped each other and supported each other through it.”

Yara Slaton, a 2015 alumna of Egyptian descent, said it would be a disservice to students to make Boise State an unwelcoming campus, especially as Boise State continues to recruit international students who usually pay higher tuition fees. Slaton said one of the things she loved about Boise State’s campus was getting to hear Arabic spoken by so many international students, who found considerable assistance and support through multi-cultural student services.

“These spaces are so important to them,” Slaton said. “They are so far from home and everything about this place is different. It’s cold and lonely, and they need places to survive.”

Ehardt said she believed expanded student mentoring initiatives could be more effective for all students, rather than initiatives specifically for groups of multicultural, LGBTQ or nontraditional students. There was nothing wrong with students forming their own groups, Ehardt said, but they shouldn’t be sponsored by the school or paid for with taxpayer money.

“I want us to have inclusion and I want us to have unity, but it just is truly diametrically opposed to think that you can be unified by dividing,” Ehardt said.

Ehardt’s letter also critiqued a program that “forces Boise State students to financially support” things like the food pantry for food-insecure students as something that drives up costs for Idaho students.

Smith, the student body president, said he’s worked to expand the food pantry during his time on campus. He said it’s funded only by donations and makes an impact on academic performance.

“When a student is food insecure, they might not be getting the meals on a regular basis like the rest of us are,” Smith said. “If you’re not getting regular meals, they’re not getting the nutrition they need and they might not be doing as well in school. When everyone does well in school, we all benefit from that — especially the state of Idaho.”

Lydia Hernandez, the student vice president of inclusive excellence, said the Inclusive Excellence Student Council’s supports Boise State’s “past, present and future initiatives.”

“We are actively working towards a university that embodies representation for the diverse students on campus,” Hernandez wrote in a statement. “This effort is a continuous process done through the prioritization of students by fostering and supporting the multitude of ideas, identities, and organizations, which we will continue to fight for relentlessly.”

Other students and alumni agreed, saying they are looking for the university to do more, not less.

“Diversity and inclusion is the low bar,” Simpson said. “We have a long way to go in Idaho, and it starts by educating one another and community building. The ‘Idaho way’ is community building, not alienating or targeting historically marginalized communities.”

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.