Opinion: State legislators debated diversity in their “civil discussion.” Here’s why that’s not okay

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By Hailey Opperman.

By now, many Idahoans are familiar with the letter Sen. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) and 27 other Republican Idaho legislators released over the summer. It criticized diversity and inclusion initiatives at Boise State, and asked our new president — just a few weeks into her position — to discontinue them.

This disappointing attack targeted programs on our campus that provide opportunities and spaces for marginalized students to feel safe and celebrated, an essential tool if we want to make our school more inclusive.

Many of the legislators’ claims were based on misconceptions, such as Black Graduation and Rainbow Graduation being “segregated” events. In reality, these events are before traditional commencement and a rare opportunity to celebrate historically underrepresented identities at an institutional level. Furthermore, anyone is welcome to attend these celebrations. The School of Nursing also has a special celebration, and there is a Veteran’s Cords ceremony, yet neither of these events was targeted by the Republican legislature.

As lawmakers continued to spout false ideas in the weeks that followed their letter (including a far-fetched proposal from Rep. Tammy Nichols (R-Middleton) to defund Boise State entirely), students were left without an opportunity to address representatives who were negligent in completing their own research into the facts and value behind these programs, as they have many times before.

Let’s jump ahead a few months.

Hundreds of students and community members gathered on Oct. 22 at Boise State for  “The Future of American Higher Education,” an event co-hosted by the Boise State College Republicans and Boise State Young Democrats. On Facebook, it was described as “a civil discussion on the ideas of diversity and inclusion within our state education systems.” 

Instead, the very structure of this forum was more closely aligned with that of a debate. It was inherently oppositional, with two Republican representatives Rep. Ehardt and Rep. Bryan Zollinger (R-Idaho Falls) arguing for the removal of these programs, and two Democratic legislators defending them: Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb (D-Boise) and Rep. Mat Erpelding (D-Boise). Both sides gave opening statements. Afterward, each side had selected moderators that asked opposing legislators a question, and after answering, the other side responded.

Sound like a debate? Yeah, that’s because it was. And while debating policy is important, debating diversity is harmful because it reinforces the systems of oppression that equitable and inclusive programs on campuses are meant to disrupt. The legislators harmed their own constituents by doubting the validity of student experiences. 

Prior to the event in an interview with Boise State Public Radio, Young Democrats president Ivy Smith stated the forum would be “a way to bring the conversation back to the students — it’s something that directly affects us.”

Yet students were not given a proper platform to express their concerns or even question any of the legislators. For an event that was nearly two hours long, it’s disappointing that only the last 15 minutes were saved for three audience questions which had to be submitted 30 minutes into the event.

Another glaring problem is how the Young Democrats and College Republicans treated diversity and inclusion as a political issue. Structuring this event as a debate — with partisan sides — reinforces this idea. It is unfortunate that these political student groups utilized their privileged mindset to create an event they knew would receive a sizable turnout and make headlines, at the expense of marginalized students who felt as though their experiences were up for debate.

As someone from Idaho Falls, which is the town that both Rep. Ehardt and Rep. Zollinger represent, it is easy to identify that their version of the “Idaho Way” is one that does not celebrate diversity or value inclusion. However, I and other students, groups and departments on campus are working to define an Idaho that does.

I serve on the Inclusive Excellence Student Council (IESC), which is a branch of our student government, the Associated Students of Boise State University (ASBSU). Our goal on the IESC is to advocate for marginalized students and ensure Boise State has equitable and inclusive policy. 

When looking critically at the exclusionary history of higher education and other institutions, our obligation to better serve historically excluded communities becomes evident and non-negotiable. 

It is incumbent upon everyone — students and legislators alike — to proactively educate ourselves on the different experiences we have. We are not going to achieve any real change if we keep discussing diversity and inclusion like they are political issues; they are values we must remain committed to in order to support all students. Which is something our Republic legislators would know — if they did their homework.

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