That recent high-profile legislative letter about university inclusiveness used this as a sort of moral cornerstone:
“As Governor Brad Little has stated on numerous occasions: We need to do things the ‘Idaho way!’”
So what is the Idaho Way when it comes to welcoming people – that is, people who may not look, sound or believe the same as a majority of Idahoans do?
Back in the days when the Aryan Nations planted their overtly racist headquarters in the Idaho panhandle, the Way seemed to refer to what state officials and other leading Idahoans made certain to tell whoever would listen: We welcome people here, whoever they may be; the Aryans’ attitudes are nothing like ours.
Fast forward …
The July 9 letter from Representative Barbara Dee Erhardt of Idaho Falls, co-signed by 27 fellow House Republicans (notice for clarity: Little was not among the signatories), bore a thin fig leaf but in practice made clear that many Idahoans, some in the Statehouse, who really don’t want people who aren’t like those in the Idaho majority to come here. Those words weren’t on the surface, but you don’t have to dig hard to get there.
The letter was directed to the new president of Boise State University, its subject the institution’s programs on inclusiveness: “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students. These initiatives by nature highlight differences and suggest that certain groups are treated unequally now – and that BSU should redress these grievances.” It goes on to suggest that money spent on inclusiveness-related programs could be better spent on keeping down the ever-higher cost of tuition for students.
Those rationales aren’t even good window dressing. None of the programs referenced either separate or segregate students (not legal in any event). Nor is their cost more than a sliver of university spending; if they all ended tomorrow students wouldn’t see any improvement in their cost structure. If the legislators were serious about helping with tuition costs they could start with better funding the state colleges and universities, which badly need it; but then, these same legislators have built careers out of keeping university budgets as paltry as possible.
No sale: This letter was simply an Idaho entry in the national culture wars, a softer regional version of the Donald Trump call for four members of Congress, whose races and politics were other than his, to be sent somewhere else (never minding that three of them were born in the United States, and the fourth also is a citizen), reflected in his crowds’ chant, “Send her back!”
In recent years BSU has touted itself, reasonably, as a metropolitan research institution, and its growth is linked to that identity. A “metropolitan research” university, anywhere, gets that way by bringing in and fostering learning and research among a wide range of people, not just within a state or even the nation, but worldwide.
Learning tends to take off when you put together people with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, knowledge and perspectives. It’s why congresses and legislatures were intended to include scores of people, not just three or four – the hope being that a wide range of view and perspective will bring a deeper understanding. (Of course, the Idaho Legislature isn’t exactly broad in scope …) Such universities, and the United States has many, are a big piece of the reason this country has grown, learned, advanced and prospered in the last century. Locally, BSU has for years developed large, and growing, economic and social impact.
It may be easy for people in homogenous communities, as many around Idaho are, to forget, but there is a difference and there are challenges for people coming into new places where there aren’t many people like you; the ability to connect with people like yourself, and see some reflection of yourself, can be reassuring and even necessary. Too, people who are a little different from the majority sometimes face maltreatment, and effort often is needed to remediate that.
Here’s the core of the BSU Statement of Diversity and Inclusivity from February 2017: “We recognize that our success is dependent on how well we value, engage, include, and utilize the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We believe that prejudice, oppression, and discrimination are detrimental to human dignity, and that a vibrant and diverse campus community enhances the learning environment of the populations that we serve.”
So in this context, what is the “Idaho Way”? As debate over that goes on, students at a university in Idaho, some a little different in background than the majority of Idahoans, continue to learn and teach and research and hope the state’s politics doesn’t sometime soon come crashing down on their heads.