Boise State students respond as diversity and inclusion programs are scrutinized by some Idaho lawmakers
There is a familiar ring to the letter that was sent to Boise State President Marlene Tromp by 28 Republican legislators recently. It may not have been ignited by the firestorm created by the infamous presidential line “go back where you came from,” but it lit a match in Idaho that has the potential to spread similar nonsensical and anti-American sentiments.
Curiously, the legislators claim that diversity and inclusion programs at Boise State aren’t the “Idaho Way,” a nebulous term popularized by Gov. Brad Little. In case the governor thinks this is only about Boise State, he is in for a big surprise when he learns that Idaho’s other research universities have such programming. Thanks to the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation, it may not be long before its diversity hunt spreads across the state and supplies the cabal of vanilla legislators with more fuel for the firestorm.
Just in case Little’s staff needs any help on how to position the governor on this issue, perhaps it might be interested in what corporate Idaho thinks of diversity. Moreover, what might be the consequences of a firestorm over diversity programming if corporate Idaho is committed to a diverse workforce?
If Idaho’s best and biggest companies support diversity in their workforces, then what could possibly be the problem with university programs that assist students of diverse backgrounds find their place on a large university campus, provide support, and build confidence in their academic and eventual career pursuits?
So, it’s off to the corporate websites of some of Idaho’s finest companies to determine whether any of the largest and most successful are treading on the “Idaho Way,” as the “right-thinking 28” have accused Boise State. After all, these companies employ thousands of Idahoans and are responsible for generating millions of tax dollars from the Boise region, which are then redistributed around the rest of the state to the very districts of the legislators complaining about diversity.
If corporate Idaho loses faith in our state’s leadership at the Capitol and takes its search for employees elsewhere, what impact might that have on income and sales tax collections, and the ability of the state to provide a high-quality education for its children, which Little has as his highest priority?
Let’s start with the Simplot Code of Conduct, which “embraces and celebrates difference, and values diversity.” As a global company, it believes “that harnessing diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds builds an innovative and dynamic culture, helps our relationships and ensures success.” Nothing subtle about that shout-out for diversity.
Albertsons Companies includes in its notice of nondiscrimination a policy of providing “free language services to individuals whose primary language is not English.” If that isn’t special programming the likes of which Boise State was called out for, then what is?
Boise Cascade calls itself an equal-opportunity employer and commits itself to “maintaining a diversified workforce by encouraging the hiring of minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans.”
Idaho Power’s website stakes out its commitment to diversity by claiming that “to be successful as a company we must be able to innovate and adapt, which only happens when we seek out and value diverse backgrounds, opinions and perspectives.” It concludes with the belief that it is a “stronger company when we stand together and embrace our differences.”
Idaho’s largest employer, Micron Technology, is the poster child for diversity, recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the best employers for diversity. Its website claims that “a workforce with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives – that is focused on inclusion – makes Micron a better place to work.”
There is another way in which the Micron of today exemplifies diversity in America. The current CEO is Sanjay Mehrotra, the co-founder of SanDisk and its CEO from 20011-2016. Recognized internationally as one of America’s most successful CEOs, Mehrotra came to the United States from his native India and received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of California-Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from Stanford University. Diversity starts at the top of Micron’s chart, and one can only imagine what he’s thinking lately as a product of universities with national reputations who wear their diversity programming on their sleeves.
Since his appointment as CEO, Mehrotra has not moved from his home and office in California, although he maintains an office in Boise as well. This has given rise to speculation as to how much of Micron will remain in Boise and how many jobs could be lost to the Idaho economy if they were shifted elsewhere. There’s a scary thought that gives a new and depressing definition to tech transfer!
Given Micron’s pivotal role in Idaho’s economy and the strong commitments Idaho’s largest companies have made to diversity, Little soon might be searching for ways to muffle the nativist chatter coming from legislators with little or no appreciation for how universities prepare students for the diverse workforces Idaho’s companies strive to build.
To remain silent could have enormous consequences for the economy of Idaho. It could also have enormous consequences for the well-being of Idaho citizens who depend on a robust state budget to provide vital state and local services.
It’s time for Little to help the people of Idaho see just how far off the mark those 28 legislators were. It’s time to reassure corporate leadership that the “Idaho Way” is the way of diversity in the workforce. It’s time to help legislators understand that diversity programming in the university is simply a pathway to jobs, careers and better lives for all students. It’s time to get the real “Idaho Way” back on track.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman Editorial Board.