Yesterday, Boise State University announced that it would resume its diversity-related courses. Dozens of the classes had been abruptly cancelled last week as state lawmakers pushed for cuts to the university’s budget to curtail “social justice ideology” at the institution.
As FIRE reported on Tuesday:
The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers’ efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges. As one legislator explained last March, the goal was to “stop rubber-stamping these budgets” and instead threaten the universities’ funding as a way to “send the message that we do have a say on what is taught.”
This year, they are following through. The course cancellation followed the state’s joint budget committee cut of $409,000 from Boise State University’s budget and efforts to cut between $2,500,000 and $18,000,000 that goes to “social justice programming and critical race theory.” (The latter effort, which would have asked the legislature to return the budget to the committee, did not succeed, as the State Senate adopted the committee’s budget — the day after the courses were cancelled.)
Against this backdrop comes last Tuesday’s cancellation of 52 diversity classes at Boise State. In a statement, the university said that it had “been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.” A rumor that a student had recorded mistreatment during class and then circulated the video to lawmakers appears to have been false, as the university says the course cancellation followed “several complaints about the courses, not one specific incident.” Lawmakers also said they had not seen the video. The university has since hired a law firm to investigate the matter, but there is no set timeline for the completion of that investigation, and it is unlikely that the courses will resume this semester.
Yesterday, the university announced that courses would resume “immediately online and asynchronously,” adding:
Students will engage with faculty, receive and submit assignments, complete the course, and achieve their learning outcomes online—a mode of instruction with which students and faculty have become increasingly familiar over the last year. This decision was made in consultation with Hawley Troxell, a local law firm conducting an investigation into reports of mistreatment or bias against students for their beliefs or values.
“This decision enables students to continue their education while the investigation into serious allegations continues,” said Boise State University Interim Provost Tony Roark. “The goal of suspending these courses was to enable the investigation to begin and ensure that this course lives up to our standard of mutual respect for faculty and students.”
Both students and faculty received information on how to report any concerns they may have related to the UF 200 course.
We understand this to mean that the courses are moving forward in a modified format. Instead of attending classes with other students in real-time, students will view pre-recorded classes. Troublingly, that change in format necessarily inhibits the ability of students and faculty to engage in discussion about the subject matter. For faculty, this also sends the chilling message that the mere act of discussing the subject matter is perceived as a risk of engendering harassment, discrimination, or other proscribed conduct. For students, it burdens their ability to learn from other students and faculty members — which should alarm even the courses’ critics, given that it frustrates the ability of students to engage in the exchange of divergent views.
Further, there is no indication that a particular section or class has been cancelled, suggesting — again — that the concern is with the broader subject matter or its discussion, not with a particular instructor’s misconduct.
Cancelling a class, let alone dozens of classes, in the middle of a semester is a drastic step by any measure, and alone demands a transparent and expedient explanation, lest it have a chilling effect on academic freedom. Doing so as lawmakers explicitly threatened the university’s funding over the issue only heightens the need for transparency.
As John K. Wilson at Academe Blog writes, the mid-semester cancellation of dozens of courses raises not only academic freedom concerns — Wilson noted that the partial restoration of classes is “simply inadequate when full restoration is necessary” — but also raises issues pertaining to the due process rights of faculty members:
The lack of due process at Boise State was shocking. For any complaint against a professor, Boise State’s policy requires “a formal notice of allegations” and adds, “The notice will include: (a) information regarding the allegations of conduct prohibited under this policy including the date, location and a description of the conduct alleged to violate this policy…..” Unless Boise State sent a formal notice of allegations to the 35 faculty detailing the date, location, and description of the violation, those faculty are not Respondents to a complaint, and if they are not the subject of a complaint, they (and their classes) cannot be suspended. Since Boise State doesn’t know any date or location for this rumored violation, they could not have sent anyone a formal complaint that complies with the policy.
The resumption of these Boise State classes in some form is a step forward. But the ongoing limitations on how students and faculty may discuss the subject matter of their classes — imposed more than a week after the classes were first abruptly cancelled — only reinforce the need for transparency and a prompt resolution. FIRE calls on Boise State to provide its students, faculty, and the public with substantive explanations for the initial class cancellations and the remaining limitations on expressive freedoms.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If your rights are in jeopardy, get in touch with us: thefire.org/alarm.