Students and faculty uncertain about impacts of House Bill 377

Idaho State Capitol Building
Photo by Taylor Humby

Boise State students and faculty have expressed concern over the impact that House Bill 377 (HB 377) will have on university courses and student activity.

The bill, which was passed on April 28, is an attempt by the Idaho Legislature to limit the teaching of “critical race theory” and discussions of social justice issues in the classroom.

HB 377 seeks to ban any teaching that says that a student’s race, class, gender identity or any other different set of characteristics makes them inferior or superior to another.

“The things that [the bill] prohibits are not things that we have any reason to believe have been occurring in any large way here at Boise State,” said Jeremy Harper, Instructional Consultant for Inclusive Teaching at Boise State. 

According to Harper, the law as it is written does not have a lot of direct impact on how professors will teach classes. Still, many professors and faculty members have responded to the bill by being transparent with their students about the content of their courses and the importance of said content.

Idaho State Capitol Building
[Photo of the Idaho State Capitol building in Boise]
Photo by Taylor Humby | The Arbiter

Lisa Brady, the department chair for the history department at Boise State, works closely with faculty whose courses deal more specifically with issues monitored by the bill.

“In terms of my colleagues who do teach courses on race and society in the United States, they have put a lot of thought into how they are going to approach these things,” said Brady. “I think that what they are doing is they’re trying to talk to students and convey to students that they are there to encourage civil discussion and to talk about different perspectives while staying within the bounds of historical evidence.”

As an intermediary between faculty in the history department and the university’s administration, Brady has provided guidance to professors in terms of adhering to the bill’s laws. 

As of recently, there has been limited instruction from the university on how to respond to the bill. On Aug. 20, an FAQ was emailed to faculty outlining the prohibitions listed in HB 377. 

However, the answers addressed in the FAQ leave a blurred line between what is considered teaching and compelling students to adopt a specific belief, which is prohibited by HB 377.

According to the interpretation of some, this could mean restricting their speech over certain topics that would not have necessitated censorship prior to the bill’s signing.

“Because things can be taken out of context, I think there’s a bit of nervousness about how things that [professors] or students say in the class might be transmitted to those who might want to use [their words] for or against them,” Brady said. “There are real concerns of academic freedom.”

The idea of losing academic freedom, along with other rights such as freedom of speech and expression, have also fostered unease among students.

“I feel like students are gonna feel less encouraged to share their story, specifically minorities,” said Angel Venegas, a junior political science major. “If we’re not able to look back on our history, we’re going to be condemned to repeat it.”

Venegas is the vice president of Organización de Estudiantes Latino-Americanos (OELA) and in April attended a student forum held at the university to express opposition towards HB 377 along with roughly 26 other Boise State students.

One of the forum’s organizers, Caitlin Vasko, shared similar concerns about the potential censorship prompted by HB 377.

“Critical race theory has been demonized to be this awful thing. In academic settings, we’re supposed to learn about theories. You know, we’re supposed to understand the world from different perspectives,” said Vasko, a sophomore double-majoring in political science and integrated strategic communications. “[HB 377’s supporters] would rather students not learn things and not understand them than understand them and have to deal with the difficult conversations that they bring up.”

Many who initially spoke out against the bill expressed that the bill’s vagueness presented yet another underlying issue. As both Brady and Harper pointed out, there are no penalties stipulated for failing to follow its laws.

“The bill itself is somewhat ambiguous,” Brady said. “If they find any one of our classes to be an opposition to the bill. What will happen? I don’t think they will find anything in opposition because our faculty are experts. They are professionals, they are ethical people.”

Some of the changes caused by the bill can even be tied to changes in the university’s funding. 

In an effort to minimize the “indoctrination” of students through discussions of social justice, Republicans in the legislature voted to cut the funding of university programs that encourage these discussions. The resulting budget bill – House Bill 387 – marked HB 377 as a necessary prerequisite for its passage.

Already HB 387 can be seen impacting the funding given to student organizations by ASBSU.

OELA has been working over the summer to raise money for Project Dream For Tomorrow, a program hosted by Boise State meant to aid Latin-American students in preparing for college. According to Venegas, Project DFT is one of the largest recruitment events Boise State has.

Due to the bill’s influence on Boise State budget cuts and distribution, OELA won’t be receiving the same monetary support from the university they’ve received in the past.

“It takes a lot of planning and we’ve been struggling a lot financially trying to get that money that we need to use now that we’re back in person for that event,” said Venegas. “We’re not sure if we’ll be able to continually support this project.”

With a new election cycle just a year away, the future of HB 377 remains uncertain. For both Vasko and Venegas, the chances of the bill going away anytime soon are slim.

“These people are making decisions about us without seeing us,” said Vasko. “I think, in fact, what we’re going to see [in the future] is worse.”

“It’s really hard to keep a positive mind knowing how polarized the world is. Not just Idaho, just in general,” said Venegas.

Regardless of political beliefs or values, members from all sides continue to urge citizens to participate in these decisions. For Boise State, that means encouraging students and faculty members to stay informed about policies that impact their community and speaking up about injustices.

“I think students play a really big role in this, and I think students should keep demanding that they have a seat at the table in these conversations,” Harper said. “I think the fight is not over, I don’t think it’s going to disappear quietly.”