A controversial bill that could alter the way students and professors deal with opposing viewpoints passed through the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, sponsored by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, would require public higher education institutions to determine policies to promote intellectual diversity in the classroom and make information about the policies and complaint procedures available.
Cunningham said she is optimistic about the bill’s chances of passing through the Senate.
“I’m not a betting person, but if I were, I’d bet it would become law,” she said.
Brooker, the namesake and inspiration of the bill, was a student at Missouri State University. Brooker’s professor asked her to sign a letter in support of adoption for same-sex couples. When she refused to sign based on her religious beliefs, she said her grade was affected. She then filed a suit.
Cunningham said cases such as this have been cited often in Missouri, and the Brooker case was an inquisition on her faith.
Two witnesses to intellectual discrimination testified at the hearing on Wednesday, and Cunningham said there were more invited but there wasn’t time to hear from them.
Cunningham also referenced a review committee that looked into reported cases of ideological-related prejudice on campuses in Missouri. The committee reported a hostile environment.
“It’s pretty obvious it’s load on top of load on top of load, and that’s a problem,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got enough evidence to show us that there should be a change.”
Although the bill is seen as a particularly partisan and polarized piece of legislation, critics from both sides of the political spectrum have emerged at MU.
College Democrats Treasurer Rick Puig said the legislation is similar to other bills across the country, and it is a nationwide effort conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“People should understand that this legislation is not a response to a local problem,” Puig said. “It’s a systematic push to go into all 50 states and get this legislation passed. What Jane Cunningham is trying to do is seek out a problem.”
Puig said there are already institutions on every campus to ensure proper teaching methods and to field harassment complaints related to any discrimination.
“Legislators have to understand that diversity is something organic,” he said. “If you have to consider some sort of arbitrary balance, you’re being partisan.”
At the April 5 Board of Curators meeting, the board discussed intellectual diversity. The curators said they want to be sure students know they can complain and what route they should take to do so. This route is one of the provisions required by the bill.
MU Provost Brian Foster said it’s better to have an informal system for complaints because students might be intimidated by formal or legal proceedings.
During the curator’s meeting, Curator David Wasinger said many education officials are seen to have a liberal bias, and the system needs to be as transparent as possible.
College Republicans President Nick Haynes said he would have preferred to have appointed people as curators and have trustees that hold intellectual diversity close to their hearts and would seek to foster that ideal within their respective universities.
“However, there are some campuses that don’t hold to the MU standard,” Haynes said. “I think that we will see the results in the future, and whether the actions of the General Assembly this spring will further academia, or harm it.”
MU sociology professor Wayne Brekhus said in the past there have been complaints filed against professors, but those were taken care of by the university.
“The legislators don’t need to be micromanaging universities,” Brekhus said. “The legislator doesn’t really need to be involved.”
Brekhus said the process of admitting students based on merit, including good transcripts and grade point averages, would be enough to ensure a diverse discussion between faculty and students.
“I think if you just let things take shape in the free market of ideas, you will get intellectual diversity either way,” he said.
Brekhus said the bill could create what he called a “culture of complaint” and that the bill would do the exact opposite of ensuring diversity.
Puig said it is important for students to understand the implications of the bill and what the purpose of it is.
“It’s absolutely important that students in the academic community understand that the intellectual community is under assault by the legislators in Jefferson City,” he said. “It wouldn’t promote intellectual diversity, it would actually do the opposite if passed.”