After a turbulent legislative session for state universities that ended with millions in punitive budget cuts to higher education, Boise State University is founding an Institute for Advancing American Values.
Boise State President Marlene Tromp made the announcement Thursday at a State of the University address hosted by the Boise Metro Chamber.
“Given this tumultuous year we’ve faced, where we’ve heard people say maybe universities don’t have the balance we need, we are launching the Institute for Advancing American Values,” Tromp said. “American values are freedom of speech, (the) free exchange of ideas. We invite people to learn and grow. We are going to model a healthy dialogue on our campus between all those voices for the benefit of our state.”
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Tromp told the Idaho Statesman that the idea for the institute came out of a series of webinars held with state representatives, faith leaders and others over the past year called Conviction and Conversation in Contested Times. The discussions have featured the president of the Idaho State Board of Education and House Speaker Scott Bedke, among others, and have covered topics such as health care, religion and higher education.
“What we don’t want to do is shy away from something just because it’s controversial,” Tromp said. “We’ve become so polarized that people aren’t in dialogue with each other. … We think if we can walk towards those (controversial) things, we’ll actually find that there are places where we have thinking in common, values in common, ideas in common.”
Tromp said she hopes the new institute, which she plans to launch in the fall, will eventually have faculty appointments and postdoctoral researchers. The school’s existing Distinguished Lecture Series will be housed in the new institute. The new institute has already received a $1 million gift from an undisclosed benefactor.
At its meeting in June, Tromp said the Idaho State Board of Education will formally consider the initiative’s opening.
Andrew Finstuen, the dean of the Honors College and the host of the recent discussions, will be the inaugural director of the new institute.
“University almost literally means a house and a home,” Finstuen told the Statesman on Thursday, “meaning there’s all kinds of ideas and perspectives that are shared, and they’re not always going to agree.”
Idealogical pressure and budget cuts
Throughout this year’s legislative session, Boise State and other state universities faced the ire of many Republican lawmakers who accused the schools of indoctrinating students with left-leaning ideas.
Lawmakers passed a bill banning schools and universities from compelling students to “affirm” or “adopt” lessons that particular identity groups are “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past” by other members of that identity group, among other stipulations. The bill also targeted “critical race theory,” though it did not define the movement among legal scholars to examine the presence of racial bias in law.
Lawmakers cut Boise State’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, by $1.5 million, which some lawmakers said would “send a message” to the university about the legislative majority’s values.
In January, Tromp was questioned pointedly about social justice at a hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and in March the university abruptly suspended a course with roughly 1,300 students enrolled after receiving reports that at least one student was “degraded” in one of its 52 sections.
On Thursday, Tromp said that people she had never met delivered flowers and candy to her house after the January hearing.
Less than two weeks after she became president of the university in the summer of 2019, Tromp got a letter from 28 lawmakers opposing the university’s efforts to promote campus diversity.
During a discussion with one signatory, Tromp said that the legislator was worried about white students from small-town Idaho arriving on campus and being made to “feel ashamed because of things they don’t know or because of who they are.”
In response, Tromp said she doesn’t “want that kid to feel ashamed, either … I want every single student who walks on our campus to feel like it is their place.”
Tromp added that financial challenges the university faces have been a struggle to address and will continue to be in the future. In addition to the recent cuts, universities nationwide have faced major reductions in state funding over the past several decades.
“($1.5 million) is a lot of money,” Tromp said. “A huge proportion of our costs are personnel, and so any figure like that is painful.”
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