Concerns that left-leaning universities are stifling free speech led to the implementation this week of a South Dakota law promoting intellectual diversity on college campuses.
Liberals have long outnumbered conservatives among higher education faculty—a trend that has accelerated in the last 15 years. South Dakota’s new intellectual diversity law, sponsored by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in March, requires public universities and community colleges to encourage free expression of ideas from across the political spectrum. The law bars universities from viewpoint-based discrimination against students and student organizations when allocating funds or permitting use of facilities. It also prohibits schools from overriding requirements that student leaders adhere to a student organization’s mission or beliefs.
At a June 26 meeting of the South Dakota Board of Regents billed as an “Intellectual Diversity Public Conversation,” the board, which oversees the state’s six public universities, received oral testimony and written comments on how best to follow the law. Many argued for adoption of the Campus Intellectual Diversity Act, a slate of initiatives proposed by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center to foster intellectual diversity in teaching, hiring, and funding. The American Civil Liberties Union was less enthused, raising concerns about the law having a chilling effect on the speech of faculty and students, overmonitoring, and stigmatization of marginalized groups.
A letter from legislators who sponsored the new law argued for dismantling campus diversity offices “used to promote social justice causes associated with the political left such as safe zone training, the biannual drag show, and social justice training.” Legislators also advocated reformed hiring practices for faculty to ensure a broad range of ideological viewpoints.
One regent, John Bastian, questioned whether universities would lose accreditation from national groups if they gutted diversity offices, The Washington Times reported. Board President Kevin Schieffer, chafing at the new requirements, told state Rep. Sue Peterson, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, “You’re the ones who set the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, and we’re trying to do it.”
While some states such as North Carolina have adopted laws addressing restrictive campus free speech zones, South Dakota is the first to promote campus intellectual diversity with a law.
Will it succeed? Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, thinks so. “I predict the diversification of expression will have a tangible effect within two years of its creation,” he told the board of regents. “As students who are quick to take offense are exposed to alternative opinions, their illiberal reactions will diminish.” And academics, Bauerlein said, “will breathe a long sigh of relief.” —Steve West