Two Idaho Republicans denied plans to defund Boise State University during a bipartisan debate over campus diversity programs Tuesday night.
“That has never been the goal,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, whose July letter to BSU President Marlene Tromp ignited a months-long debate over the university’s diversity and inclusive initiatives.
More than 400 students and community members packed the auditorium in Boise State’s Student Union Building to hear Idaho Republicans and Democrats debate “The Future of American Higher Education,” hosted by Boise State Young Democrats and Boise State College Republicans. Boise Democrats Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb and House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding joined Idaho Falls Republican Reps. Ehardt and Bryan Zollinger to discuss how diversity and inclusion programs fit into public institutions like Boise State.
Although other Idaho legislators like Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, and Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton — who was in attendance Tuesday night — have recently voiced their own interest in defunding diversity programs at Boise State, Zollinger and Ehardt claimed they had no such plans. Both said they weren’t aware of a petition to decrease Boise State funding.
“I also haven’t seen the petition,” Zollinger said. “I haven’t spoken with anybody that’s in favor of cutting funding for Boise State.”
Zollinger reiterated that Idaho Republicans like himself and Ehardt did not dispute the importance of diversity at Boise State and the need to be inclusive of students from all backgrounds.
“My concern is we also have a fundamental responsibility as legislators, to protect taxpayer dollars,” Zollinger said. “The bureaucracy that has come with the diversity programs is what is out of control.”
In that vein, Zollinger said that while he had no desire to defund or decrease Boise State funding, he would not support several new diversity and inclusion staff positions originally proposed by interim Boise State President Martin Schimpf in June.
Several questions submitted by community members were pointed. Do you support a petition to decrease Boise State funding? Why are Republican lawmakers targeting diversity programs if they claim inclusion is important? Please explain why funding programs for diverse groups is not the “Idaho way”?
Erpelding and Buckner-Webb also pushed back against Idaho Republicans’ characterization of certain diversity and inclusion programs as “segregation.” While Erpelding said he could understand concern over separate programs, he said characterizing those programs as state-sponsored segregation was historically inaccurate.
“Let’s use our language appropriately and understand nothing happening on this campus is anywhere near segregation,” Erpelding said. “Segregation is what we did to African-Americans, to the Chinese, to Latinos ... “
Lawmakers also touched on:
- DACA recipients and the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship: “That child, as far as I’m concerned, is a U.S. citizen and yes they should have access to Idaho schools,” Erpelding said.
- Hate speech: “I personally do not believe in hate speech,” Ehardt said. She claimed the term was often used as a “weapon” to keep people — usually those with conservative or Christian views — from speaking up.
- Elevating minority voices: “We have something very vital to offer,” Buckner-Webb said. “We want to work with you and not against you.”
Boise State students in the crowd appeared far more supportive of Democrats Buckner-Webb and Erpelding — a fact Ehardt acknowledged ruefully.
“We can hear that the majority of people here are enjoying listening to my (Democratic) colleagues,” Ehardt said to the students in the crowd. “But you’re here and willing to listen.”
Boise State student Ann Shelgrove, 20, seemed skeptical that lawmakers would make any concerted effort to defund Boise State diversity programs.
“There would be so much student backlash,” Shelgrove told the Statesman after the event.
Boise State student body president Kaleb Smith said he thought the event was an important discussion to bring to the campus community.
“I am proud to be part of a student body and campus community that comes together to have these civil conversations and discussions even when they can be so polarizing,” Smith said.