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Michelle Goldberg: The social justice purge at Idaho colleges

State lawmakers attack diversity classes at Boise State University.

(Keith Ridler | AP photo) In this Jan. 15 photo, the Idaho Senate gathers in the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho.

Last month, I wrote that right-wing legislatures trying to ban critical race theory from public schools and institutions were a far more direct threat to free speech than what’s often called cancel culture.

Some opponents of critical race theory responded that these bans aren’t meant to prohibit teaching about critical race theory; that they are, rather, meant to protect individuals, especially children, from coerced speech and indoctrination.

“CRT’s critics aren’t arguing that no one has the right to talk and write about CRT (particularly among adults on college campuses); they are resisting the implication that CRT is a settled and acceptable dogma,” Christine Rosen wrote in Commentary. “They also take issue with the way this theory is being imposed on schoolchildren, many of whom have been forced to denounce immutable parts of themselves, such as their skin color and sex, in CRT struggle sessions.”

I’m willing to concede at least part of what Rosen is saying. I don’t like struggle sessions; I think critical race theory as it developed in the academy is intellectually rich, but some of the ways it’s been adapted by workplace diversity trainers and education consultants seem risible. Rosen referred to a Nevada lawsuit by a Black woman who accused a charter school of making life miserable for her mixed-race son because he rejected certain ideas about privilege and oppression; if the details in it are true, he was seriously mistreated.

The right-wing caricature of progressive public schools as pampered reeducation camps is extremely far from my own family’s experience, but if any kids are being bullied and shamed for refusing to espouse social justice principles, even principles I agree with, that’s wrong.

However, the claim that the right’s war on critical race theory doesn’t threaten academic freedom is also wrong. Consider what just happened in Idaho, where last week Boise State University suspended dozens of classes, online and in person, dealing with different aspects of diversity. This week, they were reinstated, but online only and “asynchronously,” without any live discussions.

These suspensions happened the day before the Idaho Senate voted to cut $409,000 from the school’s budget, an amount meant to reflect what Boise State spends on social justice programs. The budget bill also banned state colleges and universities from using any appropriated funds to “support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus,” and requires schools to report all social justice spending to the Legislature. The Idaho Statesman quoted one lawmaker saying of schools, “They’re going to get the message.”

Some of the facts behind the class suspensions are unclear. In an email to the campus, university leaders described “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.” An English professor at the university tweeted that the allegation concerned a taped Zoom discussion of white privilege that had been handed over to the Legislature, but so far it hasn’t emerged publicly. (The tweets have since been deleted.)

It’s obviously impossible to evaluate the allegations without knowing what they are. If a student was humiliated, that’s serious and should be addressed. But it’s hard to see how whatever happened implicated 52 different classes, and the political pressure the university is under is undeniable.

The $409,000 taken from Boise State’s budget was a compromise; other conservative lawmakers wanted to cut far more. Ron Nate, a member of Idaho’s House of Representatives, this month called for millions of dollars in cuts to education funding targeting “social justice programming and critical race theory.” At a January hearing, he subjected Boise State University’s president, Marlene Tromp, to McCarthyite questioning over statements that some of the school’s departments issued supporting Black Lives Matter.

“Does BSU plan to continue diverting university resources to this Marxist cause and encouraging students to consume more BLM content?” he asked. He told her that her school’s funding was in jeopardy: “Many legislators, frustrated with BSU, want to defund the social justice agenda by reducing higher education spending.”

What’s happening in Idaho is not unique. All over the country, state legislators are trying to curtail teaching about racism and sexism, in universities as well as elementary schools.

“We’ve seen a spate of these bills across the country, and some of them are more concerning than others,” said Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group devoted to academic freedom. “It’s comparable, I think, to what happened in Hungary, where the government there cracked down on, or banished essentially, the teaching of gender studies.”

Crusading against a relatively obscure academic discipline, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary turned it into a proxy for modernity itself.

“Integral to almost all the attacks is the implication that gender studies itself is not an academic discipline, but something larger and more mendacious,” Eliza Apperly wrote in The Atlantic. Relatively powerless academics were demonized as dangerous subversives.

There’s a similar inversion in the campaign against critical race theory. The right likes to pretend that social justice-inflected academic disciplines are full of ideological commissars browbeating conservative students. But particularly in conservative places like Idaho, it’s the professors, many of them untenured, who feel intimidated.

“With the climate as it is, I wouldn’t doubt that folks are starting to look over their shoulder,” said Melissa Wintrow, who served as director of the women’s center at Boise State before becoming a state senator.

When it comes to the campaign against critical race theory, the fear is part of the point.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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