Debating diversity: Who decides what programs are worth students’ money

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Programs and events such as Black Graduation, Rainbow Graduation, Pow Wow, the campus food pantry, emergency funding for students and many more were described as unnecessary expenses for Boise State students — but not by the university. 

In July, Idaho House Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, wrote a letter encouraging President Marlene Tromp, who had only taken office a week prior, to cut diversity and inclusion efforts. This letter detailed numerous programs that the caucus deemed to be driving up education costs for all students at Boise State. 

“Like many of my colleagues, I believe in higher education,” Ehardt wrote in the letter. “However, I don’t view the current direction of Boise State to be in the tradition of what higher education has been, or should be, in Idaho. As legislators, we will seek and support academic excellence that does not pursue social or political agendas or incur additional costs.”

“The Idaho way” was a phrase deemed by Ehardt and others as what constituents in the state consider to be the best way to include everyone in higher education, and that Boise State is not headed in the direction that best fits the standard.

Many, however, are opposed to the Republicans’ sentiment about higher education and the growing needs of students. Hailey Opperman, a sophomore pre-nursing major and first-year member of the Inclusive Excellence Student Council (IESC) at Boise State, responded to the letter with worry about the future for students who would be affected by a diversity and inclusion budget cut. 

“It was just very transparent to see that they want to continue this path of exclusionary work and practices in our higher education institutions,” Opperman said. “And that’s not what we’re about, that’s not the work we’re doing. And so we’re definitely taking strides to step away from that, and let the students here know that are marginalized, that we want them to be here, we want them to be welcome. We want them to feel safe and celebrated.” 

Equity at the university also remains at the forefront of legislative minds. Senator Maryanne Jordan, minority caucus chair, responded to the letter from Republicans with questions about what this statement means for marginalized communities.

I was concerned, as well as many members of my caucus, and I’m sure you saw the response that we had,” Jordan said. “We find great value in those programs. University experience is not always a level playing field for everyone, and programs that can help lift everyone up and help them succeed are incredibly valuable.” 

Shortly after Democrats replied to the original letter, most received a postcard depicting President Marlene Tromp and legislators as clowns in a depiction of the little-known, right-wing ideology “clown world.” For Jordan, that postcard was not a surprise due to similar mail in the past, but the discourse still served as a disappointment. 

“I don’t know that I generally expected it but, honestly, it didn’t surprise me,” Jordan said. “We have people in Idaho that still don’t have protections under the Idaho Human Rights Act and this kind of public discourse is just teeming to get worse and worse all the time. Sadly, I wasn’t shocked by it, just disgusted.” 

The outrage caused by both the letter and the postcard has ignited a heated conversation about the importance of diversity funding. 

As outlined in the letter, the first issue that Republicans claim will drive up tuition costs is the encouragement for students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status to apply for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship. Francisco Salinas, director of student diversity and inclusion at Boise State, commented on why DACA students may not be speaking out against funding issues. 

“You know, what happened when DACA was rescinded, is that those students who kind of came out of the shadows, I think some of them felt tricked, as though they were tricked into coming out of the shadows, and then they expose some level of vulnerability,” Salinas said. “Our relationship with those students, and that potential student population, is now marred by distrust.”

Salinas explained that, because DACA students are eligible for the scholarship through their resident status in Idaho, they are able to apply. The attention brought to them through the letter could jeopardize that, though financial need exists for all students.

“We have to look very critically at how things are funded and what the effects are for student costs,” Salinas said. “And I know that we’re living in a time where the cost (for) students has skyrocketed. I think we need to look comprehensively at education, and not just public four-year universities, but other kinds of educational opportunities as a public good.” 

Though the cost of tuition has risen steadily over recent years, Jordan argues that the cost for these diversity programs is minuscule on a large scale. 

“When you look at it relatively speaking, it’s a small amount of money,” Jordan said. “We have over 20,000 students at Boise State, talking about less than 500,000 dollars for these programs, and I think that the value that they provide can be opportunities for support and success that they give to the students more than pays for itself.”

Kennedy Binegar, a junior film and television major, voiced her concerns about barring DACA students from applying for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship, and that the representatives did not coin the phrase “the Idaho way” with the best interests of Idahoans. 

“Who are we to say that someone doesn’t deserve an education and that someone can’t be successful because of where they were born?” Binegar said.

Alyssa Wainaina, a sophomore sociology major and a member of the IEC, explained that students need to have their voices heard in order to feel empowered in higher education, and  having representation plays a large part in their decision process. 

“I would say a big reason why marginalized groups would choose a school would be based off the representation in staff and administration, seeing other people of color and other marginalized identities,” Wainaina said. 

A letter in response to the diversity controversy from Idaho House Democrats reiterated that “the Idaho way” was about ensuring higher education opportunities is essential to creating productive spaces for marginalized communities. 

“Idahoans also value affordable access to life-long learning opportunities,” Democrats wrote. “This responsibility is shared between the legislature and Idaho’s institutions of higher learning. We are proud that our institutions are doing their part. Idaho’s higher education institutions create welcoming environments to serve students from diverse backgrounds who are striving for a better life and more opportunity. This is the ‘Idaho way.’”

Isabella LaForte, a junior social work major, described her worry regarding rising tuition costs, but recognizes that access to higher education is essential to success.

“I think, in comparison to the rest of the world, America makes it extremely hard for people to receive a higher education,” LaForte said. “And with us being one of the more (socially) modernized countries, I don’t think that that’s fair with how our environment is set up. At this point, you need a higher education to just live here, and so not giving someone the opportunity is setting them up for failure down the line.”

Creating equal opportunities for all students attending Boise State, according to the letter from Republicans, is the main objective in cutting diversity programs  they claimed were antithetical to “the Idaho way.”

There is no “one-size fits all” interpretation of “the Idaho way” according to Salinas, and  labeling students with one meaning is bound to leave some behind. 

“I don’t get to define the Idaho way, but I do get to be a part of the conversation of what the Idaho way is, because I am very proud to be an Idahoan, and I have chosen to live here for a number of years, and I’ve come back to Idaho after going away,” Salinas said. “Idaho is a beautiful place with wonderful people. I think for me, what my Idaho way is, is a way that is inclusive; a way that values the humanity of each of us as individuals and a way that recognizes that we are more together than we can ever be separately.”

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