Education Committee debates Brooker Act

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 | 9:11 p.m. CST; updated 11:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Intellectual diversity won’t be a statute just yet.

During a one-hour discussion of the issue on Tuesday, the House Higher Education Committee heard multiple witnesses’ opinions of the controversial House Bill 1315, known as the Emily Brooker Higher Education Sunshine Act.

Last session, the committee spent four hours debating the bill, which forces public universities to write an annual report of student complaints regarding teacher biases. Committee Chairman Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said the representatives did not need as much time this year because the committee members remained the same.

“We still have all the same players,” he said.

Kingery said that last year’s discussion “had the desired effect” at many colleges and universities.

“Because of the hearing last year, most schools have in place a policy to assure their students won’t be subjected to what (Emily Brooker) was,” he said. “I assume everybody has complied at this time.”

Scott Charton, spokesman for the University of Missouri System, said all four UM campuses addressed intellectual pluralism, which the bill defines as the “diversity of ideas” that expose students to different “political, ideological, religious and other perspectives” at the beginning of the school year.

“We are committed to a variety of viewpoints,” Charton said.

The Board of Curators worked out a plan in October that requires each campus to create a Web site focused on the issue and to appoint an ombudsman responsible for receiving student complaints and writing a report about them at the end of each academic year.

“This makes one wonder if legislation is needed because universities are taking steps to prevent that kind of discrimination,” Charton said.

Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said she sponsored the bill because it creates a better safeguard than university rules do.

“University policy is a lot easier to throw in the trash than a statute is,” she said. “We want to make sure students are always protected against discrimination.”

But Kingery said there might be another force driving this issue.

“There could be political motivation,” he said.

Cunningham, who is running for state Senate this year, worked with Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, to get the bill passed through both legislative bodies.

“If we’re trying to get legislation passed quickly, we do it from both sides,” Cunningham said.

The representative said Purgason asked her if he could pass a nearly identical bill in the Senate after hearing her present it during a speech.

“I was thrilled,” she said.

Purgason’s district borders that of the county where the incident involving Emily Brooker and a professor at Missouri State University took place.

In 2005, Brooker received a lower grade in a class after refusing to sign her name to a letter supporting gay marriage that she wrote as an assignment for a class.

“What got the attention of the legislature was the situation at MSU,” Charton said, calling it “over the top.”

Rick Puig, a sophomore at MU, said he thought the incident was a rare one.

“While the Brooker case was an unfortunate occurrence, using it as a political tool is nothing more than a systematic attempt to make the exception the rule,” he said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said this type of situation is far from isolated.

“A lot of legislation is written because of a couple of bad apples,” he said.

Cunningham, however, said other evidence supports the bill’s mission. She cited a survey conducted by a Connecticut-based research firm at MU and MSU.

“Fifty-one percent of students feel the need to agree with their teacher in order to get a good grade,” she said.

But Puig said this bill distracts legislators from “what really matters to higher education.”

“At the end of the day, we still debate a grossly redundant, politically motivated and intellectually poisonous piece of legislation that attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.

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