Guest Opinions

Boise State promotes academic freedom and intellectual diversity

A conversation about free speech, academic freedom at Boise State

A BSU dean and a conservative critic sat down with the Idaho Statesman's Bill Manny for a thoughtful dialogue about a heated social media firestorm over one political scientist's writings on transgender people and feminism.
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A BSU dean and a conservative critic sat down with the Idaho Statesman's Bill Manny for a thoughtful dialogue about a heated social media firestorm over one political scientist's writings on transgender people and feminism.

Conservatives may mock so-called “safe spaces,” but they’re not above calling on the government to punish universities deemed insufficiently supportive of conservative beliefs. Consider the opinion article written in the Statesman on Oct. 28 by Fred Birnbaum, vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

[RELATED: A conversation about free speech at Boise State ]

Birnbaum claims Boise State political science professor Scott Yenor is facing a “coordinated campus effort” to silence students and faculty who agree with him and urges the Idaho Legislature to withhold funds to expand the Boise State School of Public Service as a kind of punishment.

Birnbaum is the latest conservative — including Ben Shapiro and Jeff Sessions — to paint a bleak picture of academic freedom at Boise State since Yenor wrote a tendentious article in the Daily Signal contending the “transgender ideology” threatens “parental rights and childhood innocence.”

Contrary to what Birnbaum writes, Boise State does promote academic freedom and intellectual diversity, values that appear increasingly imperiled at some universities today. Last winter, President Bob Kustra disseminated an email on Diversity and Inclusion, stating the school promotes “values of open, respectful discourse and exchange of ideas from the widest variety of intellectual, religious, class, cultural, and political perspectives.” Yenor’s conventional conservative beliefs presumably fall into the latter category.

Birnbaum falsely asserts that Corey Cook, dean of the School of Public Service, backed away from supporting Yenor’s right to free expression. On the contrary, Cook wrote on Facebook that “we need to encourage our faculty to voice their ideas and opinions whether popular or not …”

Birnbaum grouses that Francisco Salinas, the director of Student Diversity and Inclusion, used “extreme” rhetoric when he suggested Yenor’s beliefs galvanize neo-Nazis. Whatever the merits of Salinas’ argument (and I believe he blundered in failing to distinguish between standard conservative beliefs and white supremacy), he never called for Yenor to be punished.

Does Boise State lack “intellectual diversity”? Not quite.

Consider the selection of essays curated by Boise State administrators for the 2017-2018 Campus Read. The essays include conservative and libertarian thinkers alongside progressive voices like Ta-nehisi Coates and Kai Cheng Thom, a trans woman of color.

What center-right sellout did the pinkos in the Provost’s Office include in the Campus Read? None other than Charles Murray, the keynote speaker of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s 2017 “Faces of Freedom” banquet and co-author of the “The Bell Curve.” Murray made national news last spring after protesters shut down his speech at Middlebury College and sent his liberal interlocutor, professor Allison Stranger, to the hospital with a concussion. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been criticized for its partisan definition of hate groups, considers Murray a “white nationalist.” (Murray is actually a libertarian who holds disputed views on race and IQ, to put it mildly).

When real white nationalists showed up last February calling themselves the “Boise State Nationalists,” Leslie Webb, vice president of student affairs, slipped into the group’s first meeting and laid out how the group could become an official campus club. In an interview with me outside that room, Webb said, “Not everyone wants perspectives to be out in the open. I recognize that. I still think that’s one of the best ways we can get into the nitty-gritty of the dialogue.”

Nobody wanted a white nationalist group on campus, but the university stuck to the First Amendment.

Boise State is a diverse campus, full of people who hold incommensurate beliefs. Is anyone surprised that, in 2017, an article critical of feminism and transgender rights triggered a heated backlash? I would expect nothing less at a university brimming with people who care about feminism and social justice.

Birnbaum wants the Legislature to make Boise State a safe space for conservatives, but isn’t this back-and-forth what college is all about?

Sam Wonacott is a Boise State University student majoring in economics with a minor in English.