More than 300 people crowded into Boise State University’s student union building Tuesday night to hear a bipartisan panel of lawmakers speak to diversity issues that have generated headlines for months.
Boise State College Republicans and Boise State Young Democrats teamed up to organize the forum, featuring Reps. Barbara Ehardt and Bryan Zollinger, both R-Idaho Falls, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise.
One cornerstone of the discussion was Ehardt’s three-page, July 9 letter to new Boise State President Marlene Tromp, where Ehardt and 27 other House co-signers urged Tromp to reconsider a series of diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives.
Ehardt addressed the letter several times Tuesday, while stressing that she does value higher education and diversity.
“Colleges and universities are getting away from their intended purpose of education and instead are focusing on social justice agendas, seemingly in every class,” Ehardt said.
Several times, Ehardt and Zollinger said their concerns were with “a bloated bureaucracy” that is growing out of control and leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions in unchecked spending. They also said the issue was about free speech, painting a picture of a campus where they said young conservatives are either afraid to speak out or bullied by their own professors for wearing MAGA hats espousing support for President Trump. Finally, they suggested that programs such as Black Graduation, Rainbow Graduation, Pow Wows, graduate fellowships for underrepresented minority students and a gender-based violence community-coordinated response team actually segregate and divide the campus instead of support diversity and inclusivity.
“It is a truism you cannot unite by dividing,” Ehardt said.
Moderators warned the audience not to clap or cheer. Largely the event was cordial and respectful. But the student-dominated crowd occasionally groaned or let its displeasure with Ehardt in particular be known, specifically after she used the word segregation several times and name-checked the Rev. Martin Luther King when mentioning diversity of thought.
The loudest outburst of the night came when Erpelding, who works and teaches on campus, took Ehardt to task for suggesting segregation was occurring at Boise State.
Erpelding said our country has a history of segregation, which included barring black people from using drinking fountains, eating at restaurants or riding on public buses.
“Let’s use our language appropriately and recognize that nothing happening on this campus, while we can have debate, is anywhere near segregation,” said Erpelding, prompting an outburst of sustained applause.
Buckner-Webb, who sits on the Senate Education Committee and is the only black member of the Legislature, said diversity programs are entirely appropriate, help support minority and other underrepresented students and benefit the economy in the long run.
“When we open our programs up to more diverse communities, we not only create a healthy staff and a healthy internal environment, we create a larger economic environment for more people to participate in,” she said.
Zollinger hammered what he called the economic impact of the diversity programs. At different times, he suggested the diversity initiatives would create 20 new jobs on campus, likely costing the taxpayers millions. Another time, he said it was six jobs and then returned to saying it was 20.
Ehardt and Zollinger said they would not vote to defund Boise State over their concerns. In fact, both suggested they were unaware that at least two of their fellow House Republicans have publicly suggested defunding Boise State.
“Nobody is talking about defunding these clubs and groups,” Zollinger said at one point.
“I also haven’t seen the petition and I haven’t spoken to anybody in favor of cutting funding for Boise State in total,” Zollinger said at another point.
Republican Rep. Chad Christensen, who represents a legislative district neighboring Ehardt and Zollinger’s district, proposed defunding Boise State and generated an enormous amount of media publicity in doing so.
In the end, Ehardt said the event was a success. She noted the crowd appeared to have a partisan bias against her but said the fact that everyone still showed up and listened thoughtfully to both sides suggests the event was justified and people are taking the debate seriously.
“We have to make sure we continue down a path of making education affordable for all and making sure everybody is heard,” Ehardt said.
She ended by offering to strike up a friendship and working relationship with Buckner-Webb, who Ehardt said she admired and enjoyed listening to.
The event was moderated by Boise State staff advisers to the Republican and Democratic student groups, who spent 70 of the 90 minutes asking their own questions. For the final 20 minutes, moderators asked questions that audience members left in punch bowls in the back of the room.