From the Opinion Editor

Boise State debate over diversity reveals conservative’s real concern: free speech

After last night’s forum at Boise State University, I have a better understanding of where opponents to diversity and inclusion programs at the university are coming from.

I just think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

The first concern I heard from state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and it was evident from the first question from BSU professor Scott Yenor, was that diversity and inclusion programs are an attempt to quell free speech, namely conservative, Christian speech.

I share the concern about free speech on campuses, as we’ve seen typically conservative speakers shouted down and shut down from even speaking on campuses across the country.

But it’s misguided that that issue is being conflated with diversity efforts at Boise State University.

Here’s the first question from Yenor: “According to the theory of diversity and inclusion, when marginalized groups hear speech that offends their self-image, they call that hate speech, and such hate speech cases cause physical and emotional trauma to those who are victims. The more exposure to hateful or hurtful ideas happens, even if those ideas are true, the sicker the people become. Given this, all European countries and Canada have criminalized hate speech in one way or another. Does the respect for marginalized groups and their self-respect demand anti-hate speech laws?” This debate has indeed been raging across Europe and Canada, and it’s an interesting debate.

I just don’t think that’s what this debate over BSU’s diversity and inclusion programs is all about.

Democratic state Rep. Mat Erpelding pushed back on the premise of Yenor’s question.

“Scott, I don’t know if that’s what the actual theory is,” Erpelding said to a round of applause. “So I can’t speak to that, and I can’t imagine that that’s what the theory says. It sounds like an interesting interpretation.”

Yenor’s second question, referencing campus violence at Berkeley and Middlebury over controversial speakers, continued to hint at this concern that diversity and inclusion is a slippery slope, ultimately leading to protests and riots: “Did diversity and inclusion policies have any role in bringing about that violence?”

To which Erpelding responded: “Do diversity programs encourage people to attack people, which is what the question was? No, it doesn’t, never has.”

Speaking more directly to the efforts of diversity and inclusion, Erpelding and state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, who is the only African-American Idaho legislator, spoke about the importance of having programs, administrators and scholarships targeted at diversity efforts, pushing back on Ehardt’s statement that only excellence and performance should be the measures of success, not race or gender or any other identity markers. But Buckner-Webb countered that “equal opportunity is not about, ‘we have to hire someone who is black or brown.’” Rather, it’s to hire the most qualified person but to make sure that “we’re expanding the hiring pool” and that it “includes people and not one single, monolithic group.”

Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, expressed more concern about budget issues and raised questions about the increase in administrative costs and bureaucracy, as well as spending money on administrators and not on students. Instead of spending $1 million on 20 positions that are related to diversity and inclusion program, he argued, the university should be using that money to improve education.

I don’t think anyone gave a really good counter to that argument, but I think the counter is that that money is going to education. It’s being used to make sure the university attracts and retains to best and the brightest students. I think the rub here is that some think diversity can happen without these programs, while diversity and inclusion program proponents argue that these programs are necessary, that without them, we’re missing out on those best and brightest students, that we won’t be able to attract and retain those students without concerted efforts to attract and retain students from underrepresented and marginalized groups.

I know Erhardt and Zollinger said they were unaware of a petition to defund Boise State, but I noticed that Zollinger couched it by saying he has no interest and doesn’t know anyone who wants to defund Boise State — in total. I think he’s still interested in “defunding” those diversity programs and positions, though, so that’s something to keep an eye on as we head into the legislative session.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.
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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.