Five presidents and one vice president from South Dakota’s six public universities testified Wednesday to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee about steps their campuses have taken to promote free speech and intellectual diversity.
The universities’ officials were responding to a new state law that says they may not “shield individuals from constitutionally protected speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.”
The presidents face a December 1 deadline to report to Republican Governor Kristi Noem and the 105 lawmakers on “all actions taken by each institution to promote and ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”
The report also must describe “any events or occurrences that impeded intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”
The final version of the legislation passed through the Senate 26-7 and the House of Representatives 51-12. The governor signed it into law March 20, less than three months into her first term.
Only Republicans have been governors since 1979 and they appoint the nine regents who oversee the state universities. The legislation seemed to target regents Dennis Daugaard appointed.
Then-Governor Mike Rounds chose Randy Schaefer of Madison in 2009. Daugaard named seven –Kevin Schieffer of Sioux Falls, John Bastian of Belle Fourche, Jim Thares of Aberdeen, Pam Roberts of Pierre, Joan Wink of Howes and student Lucas Lund of Sioux Falls, according to SDBOR website — while he held office from 2011 through 2018. Noem picked Barb Stork of Dakota Dunes.
The regents also chose their current executive director, Paul Beran, during Daugaard’s second term. Beran said Wednesday he agreed to help pass the legislation, after fighting against an earlier version of it, but he also sent a six-page letter October 22 that refuted some of the committee’s perceptions. The letter said the universities needed more state funding to fulfill some legislators’ expectations.
The bill’s prime sponsor was Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican. One of her co-sponsors was the House speaker, Representative Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican. A lawyer, Haugaard said Wednesday his perspective reflected the principle in section one of Article VIII of the South Dakota Constitution.
The 65-word sentence deals with public schools.
“What we’ve seen, is there’s an increasing acceptance of socialism across the country, and that isn’t what our country is about,” Haugaard told the other GOAC members.
He went on. “The concern though is to try to stem that tide. Socialism doesn’t work. and republican form of government does, and a shared morality does,” he said.
“And I understand the idea of free speech, and it shouldn’t be reined in very much, but there are limits to it as well,” he continued.
“But I would just like to see the universities committed to the idea that you’re going to hire staff that affirm the idea of a republican form of government, and have a certain degree of shared morality.
“As I’m sure it’s very difficult to go through that hiring process and try to screen people and try to balance those factors, but that is the constitutional mandate, to ensure a stable form of government — a stable form of republican government — supporting morals and acquiring knowledge that leads to wisdom.”
Armand Alacbay, vice president of trustee and government affairs for American Council of Trustees and Alumni, came to Pierre from the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to speak Wednesday.
He praised the legislation.
“I first want to thank the people of South Dakota for becoming the first state to recognize by law the value of intellectual diversity in higher education,” Alacbay told the committee.
Peterson asked university officials whether they had met with people representing organizations such as FIRE, which stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
AJ Franken, who was a lawyer in the Daugaard administration before becoming general counsel at the University of South Dakota in 2018, said he had worked with them on various policies.
“We’ve incorporated much if not all of their suggested language,” Franken said.