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Bill would ban instruction of 'divisive topics' in higher education

Opponents concerned about lack of evidence surrounding viewpoint based discrimination on university campuses

North Dakota Capitol
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Forum file photo
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BISMARCK – A bill that would ban the instruction of "divisive concepts" at institutions of higher learning was met with opposition from higher education leaders, during testimony before the Senate Education Committee on Monday.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Paulson, R-Minot, divisive concepts include the assertion that the U.S. is inherently racist or sexist, that all Americans are not created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and that meritocracies are oppressive by nature. Furthermore, the bill would prohibit discrimination or disciplinary action against students or faculty solely due to their viewpoints.

“There is a feeling of intimidation among people speaking out against these concepts,” said Paulson. “And that concerns me. Why are they intimidated, why are they afraid?”

When asked by Sen. Jay Elkin, R-Taylor, for quantitative evidence regarding the prevalence of discrimination against opposing viewpoints on university campuses, Paulson said “the proof will be challenging," but provided an anecdote of an individual who alleged receiving a lower grade due to their political beliefs. Paulson did not offer any further details of the individual's identity, or where and when the event occurred.

Testifying in opposition to the bill, Faith Wahl, UND student body president, said banning the instruction of divisive topics goes against the free exchange of ideas.

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“I’ve been in a lot of classes where disagreement is encouraged,” said Wahl. “If there are mandates or barriers around these divisive topics, I fear that even talking about them will cause issues, and make students less willing to express their opinions. As we send students out into the workforce, I think it’s important we teach them how to disagree and engage in critical dialogue.”

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, said assertions of ideological discrimination on university campuses in North Dakota are unfounded.

“Senate bill 2247 represents just the latest volley in the culture wars surrounding education in our country,” said Archuleta. “There is no great hue and cry about divisive concepts at the university level. It was difficult for Senator Paulson to cite evidence that wasn’t anecdotal. If our campuses were seeing a risk of discrimination against opposing viewpoints, we’d certainly be hearing a more poignant call to action. We fear this legislation will have a chilling effect on students and faculty, as they delve deeply into issues whose solutions remain elusive.”

Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the North Dakota University System, offered neutral testimony, as the university system has not yet established an official stance on the bill. Johnson expressed concern that requiring institutions to conduct biennial campus climate surveys assessing diversity of thought violates a stipulation of the bill prohibiting the asking of students’ and faculty members’ ideological viewpoints.

“Lines one through three on page three of the bill explicitly prohibit institutions under the control of the State Board of Higher Education to even inquire about the ideology or political viewpoint of a student, job applicant or employee,” said Johnson. “And yet the biennial survey requirement necessitates that respondents disclose their viewpoints, in order to assess whether we have diversity of thought.”

Johnson also said every NDUS institution has an appeals process, conducted annually at a minimum, for students and faculty to redress grievances regarding perceived viewpoint based discrimination.

Banish covers news pertaining to K-12 and higher education, as well as county commission coverage.
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