House approves controversial diversity bill

Critics say the proposal could protect racist beliefs.
Friday, April 13, 2007 | 1:06 a.m. CDT; updated 12:39 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri public colleges and universities would be required to show the state that they “ensure and promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom” under a bill given final passage by the House on Thursday.

Approved by a 97-50 vote, the measure drew heated debate as Democrats and Republicans clashed over what effects the bill would have if it became law.

Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, issued a strong rebuke of the proposal, declaring it a witch hunt that is “part of a national, right-wing, extremist agenda.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, implored lawmakers to back the legislation if they support academic freedom.

“If you believe in education and not indoctrination, if you believe students should not be penalized for grades based on what they believe and in their viewpoint, then you vote yes for this bill,” Cunningham said before the vote. Now headed to the Senate, the measure has the support of Gov. Matt Blunt.

The legislation would require public universities and colleges in Missouri to give an annual report to the General Assembly that details the steps they are taking to protect and promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom. The bill does not mandate any specific steps, but provides 13 suggestions on policies universities could implement. Harris expressed concern over one of the bill’s suggestions that universities create policies to protect professors against “viewpoint discrimination” when they seek tenure. He questioned Cunningham on whether professors who espouse radical ideas, such as teaching that the world is flat or denial of the Holocaust, would be given protection against discrimination.

“It allows for and even encourages a university to adopt, for example, a flat-earth studies department,” Harris said.

Cunningham said the bill simply gave protection to different ideologies on university campuses.

“This is America, anybody can say anything they believe,” Cunningham said. “I just want to make sure that they are not put down for that; they’re free to share what they think.”

In expressing support for the measure, Rep. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, told the House that his daughter was denied admission to a postgraduate counseling program at a Missouri public university because when she indicated she was a Christian, she was told “we have no need for you people.”

But Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhardt, argued that incidents of academic discrimination are isolated.

“I don’t think we should meddle in institutions and how they deliver learning and how they deliver theory,” Roorda said, “and I think this bill goes way, way too far towards that.”

The bill is named after Emily Brooker, a Missouri State University graduate who sued the school last year, saying that a professor lowered her grade in a course because she refused to express support for homosexual adoption. The university settled the lawsuit with Brooker, but the incident sparked an external review of MSU’s School of Social Work. The review found that social work faculty have been disrespectful to students with certain religious convictions, and prompted the university’s president to threaten closing the school if the problems are not addressed.

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