South Dakota’s Board of Regents appeared to be sipping from a fire hose Wednesday during a hearing on how to comply with a new law that requires the state’s universities to encourage intellectual diversity and free speech.
And when it came to diversity, there was no shortage of diversity of opinion about how the board should move forward with the new law, which requires yearly reporting on what schools are doing to promote intellectual diversity among speakers, faculty and staff.
The bill originated with conservative lawmakers who were concerned that left-wing political ideology in higher education has drowned out conservative voices. They pointed to several high-profile incidents outside of South Dakota in which conservative speakers were attacked or shouted down.
But Board of Regents President Kevin Schieffer said he didn’t think South Dakota’s university system had a problem. Schieffer, who called himself a “conservative Republican” during the hearing, served as chief of staff to Republican Sen. Larry Pressler.
“I do think there is an issue out there,” Schieffer said. “But I do worry about blowing this out of proportion.”
“I just haven’t seen it in South Dakota,” he added.
But David Randall, the director of research for the National Association of Scholars, a group that includes 3,000 professors who promote academic freedom and intellectual diversity in higher education, warned Schieffer that South Dakota was “not as far down the road” as other states, but it was only a matter of time before an “ever thinking” orthodoxy of liberal ideology would reduce intellectual diversity.
While some students testified that conservatives self-censor their beliefs because of fears of retaliation, other students testified that there was already intellectual diversity. Allyson Monson, the South Dakota State University Student Association president, said the student union contained signs from groups promoting meetings and events from across the political spectrum.
Some conservative lawmakers behind the new law suggested that university diversity offices should be scaled back because they say those offices are the nexus for left-wing animosity to conservatives. But Taneeza Islam, the executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace, argued that diversity offices should be given even more funding than they get now.
Board member Jim Thares questioned whether lawmakers had data to back up their belief that left-wing ideology was harming the university system. “South Dakota,” he suggested, “is maybe a little bit different than the rest of the country.”
Rep. Sue Peterson, one of the law’s sponsors, said there was national data to support a left-wing bias, but she had not seen data on the state’s university system.
That’s one area where the board could venture: Armand Alacbay, a vice president with The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the board could get a baseline by collecting metrics through an outside polling firm, including an idea of whether students are self-censoring their opinions because of fears of reprisal.
“This conversation,” he said, “is long overdue in higher education.”