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South Dakota legislature seeks intellectual diversity at state universities

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 13, 2006

When the issue of political correctness (cultural Marxism) arose on college campuses a few years back, my colleague William S. Lind thought he had a solution. After some discussion with crack legislative attorney Mike Hammond we had a bill drafted which very simply would have cut off all Federal aid to any school which adopted a so-called speech code. This would apply to all Federal funding, including grants for basic research.

Lind reasoned that currently most faculty senates usually have an overbalance of participation from social sciences, political science and newer programs, such as feminist studies and studies of various minorities. Engineering, chemistry and other practical sciences seldom participate. They are too busy with real-world activities. Lind felt that when word went out that their grants also were in peril they would begin to participate and would help overturn these speech coaches.

We shopped this bill around for a time. Only one Senator went so far as to threaten to introduce the bill. When word circulated in this Senator's very conservative state, with an all conservative Republican delegation, the academic community came out of the woodwork and screamed bloody murder. Eventually even this Senator backed off.

Perhaps having learned how academia will stick together on such legislation we can recognize the effort was a bit of an overreach. Yet presently a far softer bill is making its way through the South Dakota Legislature. This bill, too, is eliciting howls from academia, which is telling the Legislature that, although even in this small State, a half a billion dollars annually is provided for higher education, the Legislature should have no say as to how the institutions of higher learning conduct themselves. This bill very simply requires the six South Dakota State universities which receive State funding to annually report what steps are being taken to insure "intellectual diversity."

By the reaction of the academic community one would think that the Legislature had demanded that these institutions hire conservatives for half the incoming faculty. The bill does no such thing. In fact, it does not tell these institutions what they must do to encourage intellectual diversity. All it does is require them to report annually about their efforts to assure that there is more of a balance in academia.

The chief sponsor of the bill, Representative Phyllis Heineman (R-Sioux Falls), says the legislation is a matter of accountability. She told the Rapid City Journal "We are looking at a 2007 higher education budget of over half a billion dollars. It is just good governance that we ask questions and seek answers in a lot of areas." She pointed out that in the Legislature both sides of an issue are treated with respect. Each side gets equal time, Heineman said. "We should expect nothing less from our universities."

She did get support from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni ("ACTA"). Anne Neal of ACTA told the Legislature "evidence has been mounting that many, if not most of our colleges and universities, are increasingly hostile to the free exchange of ideas." According to Celeste Calvitto, staff reporter for the Rapid City Journal, ACTA has released a report outlining steps which universities could take to "encourage a mix of ideas on campus and to respond to the growing public concern about the lack of intellectual diversity."

Representative Heineman said, "We are simply asking for a report. We are saying to universities ‘tell us your story.'" The usual suspects - such as the ACLU, the South Dakota Education Association and the State Board of Regents all vehemently oppose the bill.

Tad Perry, Executive Director of the Board of Regents, termed the bill "legislative intrusion." He claimed, as South Dakota was developing a good reputation in the field of academic research, that the bill could create "a national reputation that is negative to higher education."

Ron Utecht, State President of the Faculty Union, said that during his 18 years as a Professor at South Dakota State he never has heard of any student or faculty member who, in his words, "have been taken to task for their religious or political beliefs." He claimed that poor performing students might use "perceived political bias" as an excuse.
Guess which organization claimed the legislation would have "a chilling effect on both faculty and students?" The ACLU, of course. That is a standard line from the ACLU playbook concerning any rule or regulation encouraging a balance in diversity to include conservatives.

After listening to testimony that the bill amounts to micromanaging the universities, Representative Thomas Brunner (R-Nisland) told the Journal, "I don't think asking for a report is micromanaging. It is just good governance."

The bill passed out of committee by a 2 to1 margin and passed the Full House by a party-line vote of 42 to 26. Now the bill proceeds to the State Senate, in which it may face a tougher vote. Also the Governor has yet to indicate how he will come down on the legislation if sent to his desk, although some proponents of the bill are hopeful.

This is a very small step and yet academia is behaving as if this bill were a complete threat to academic freedom. It is a typical liberal tactic. Scream bloody murder at a tiny step requiring that examination of a problem. By screaming to high heaven now, liberals believe they will cause the State Legislature to back off more stringent measures if and when they don't comply with this small step. It always has worked for them elsewhere.

Perhaps in South Dakota, with its strongly Republican Legislature and a conservative Republican Governor, things will be different. Readers should note that last session of the Legislature South Dakota came within a whisker of outlawing all abortions despite the fact that Roe v Wade is supposed to be settled law.

Often states are laboratories where experiments can take places which will serve as models for other states. Soon there is a national movement. Tax limitation came about that way, for example. In South Dakota this is one small step in the right direction. What is attractive about the bill is that it turns the code word "diversity" against the very people who have used it to shove their version of political correctness down the throats of unsuspecting students and even some faculty. "Diversity? They want diversity?" one supporter of the bill said. "Fine. Let's have at it."

Paul M. Weyrich is the Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.



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