Changes afoot for diversity bill

Students and professors discuss academic freedom.
Thursday, April 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:09 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — In a brief Senate Education Committee meeting Wednesday, students, professors and lobbyists spoke about a bill that the sponsor said will stop discrimination against college students because of their religious or political views.

Proponents and opponents were equally represented, with opponents of the bill saying the bill will do the opposite it is intended to do.

“Professors and students will be constantly second-guessing themselves,” said Lincoln University student body president Jeremy Bradley.

He added that if professors are required to show both sides of an issue, then when they talk about the Holocaust, they might also have to talk about the view that the Holocaust did not happen, because that is a minority view.

The Missouri House gave initial passage to Rep. Jane Cunningham’s bill that would establish the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act on April 12. The legislation, House Bill 213, would also require universities to annually report the ways in which they are promoting academic freedom and free exchange of ideas without bias toward religious or political affiliation.

Brooker, who graduated from Missouri State University in May, said that in a policy class she was required to write a letter advocating on behalf of gay couples who wish to adopt children. She completed the entire assignment, but would not sign the letter because she said it conflicted with her religious beliefs. For that, her grade was dropped.

“Employees of the state used a class to advocate political views,” said Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, chairman of the education committee.

Brooker was then forced to sign a contract dismissing her religious beliefs so that she could graduate.

But Bradley said he thinks this was an isolated situation and that most universities are not like MSU, whose School of Social Work also was recently accused of being a hostile environment.

David Robinson, a history professor at Truman State University, said 28 other states have introduced bills similar to Cunningham’s and all have been defeated.

“Legislation would stop the free market of ideas and rifle debate,” Robinson said.

But Cunningham said this would encourage debate and stop students from being afraid to speak against their professor’s opinions. She added that 51 percent of students at MU and MSU said they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade.

The committee did not have time to vote and discuss the bill more before the Senate had to go back into session. Committee members expect more discussion and a vote next week, with an alternate version of the bill offered by two senators.

The alternate version outlines what information colleges and universities must report to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education to show that they are promoting intellectual diversity. It also removes language that allows the Bible to be used as a historical text. Cunningham said that language was too controversial and that she doesn’t want it to prevent the bill from passing.

The bill must now be voted on in committee and go through preliminary and final passage in the Senate before the governor can choose whether to sign it into law.

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