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As Idaho universities endure political storm, most students feel accepted, valued

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Idaho State Board of Education
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Nine out of ten Idaho college students in a recent survey say they feel valued and respected, and they feel a sense of belonging.

The results are among the first batch of findings from a poll ordered by the Idaho Board of Education in response to continuing criticism from Republican lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session. In early May, the legislature cut $2.5 million from state colleges and universities, mainly as a rebuke to diversity and inclusion programs.

The initial survey results released Wednesday paint a different picture of how students feel on campus.

Two-thirds of students said they never or rarely feel pressured to affirm or accept beliefs they find offensive. Nearly 80 percent said they never or rarely feel shamed or bullied for sharing their personal beliefs or viewpoints. Nine in ten said they feel safe to express their personal beliefs or viewpoints with others. The results indicated majorities regardless of campus, class level or partisan affiliation, the state board said.

“The good news is most of our postsecondary students, regardless of political leaning, gender, race, or age feel valued, respected and welcome on our campuses,” Idaho Board of Education President Kurt Liebich said in a statement. “But a minority of students in our state also say there are times when they don’t feel a sense of belonging.”

Some students indicated they didn’t feel fully accepted or respected on occasion, according to Board of Education Chief Academic Officer T.J. Bliss. Because the responses haven’t been fully analyzed, it’s too early to say what issues might explain those feelings, Bliss said.

Among the survey’s 8,989 respondents, stated political affiliations were nearly evenly split. 27 percent identified themselves as leaning left, with an equal percentage describing their political views as centrist. 23 percent identified as conservative or right-leaning. Eighteen percent – roughly one in six students – did not disclose any political affiliation, and five percent called their views “other.”

The survey is only the latest turn in a long-running struggle over the politics of higher education in the Gem State.

In April 2019, lawmakers rejected an initial plan for college and university funding in response to diversity and inclusion programs at Boise State University. That summer, 28 House Republicans signed a letter to Boise State president Marlene Tromp that criticized her predecessor’s inclusion efforts as expensive and divisive. The letter also implied the school’s efforts did not reflect “Idaho values.” Though the letter was addressed to Tromp, copies were sent to the president of every college and university in the state. This year, Boise State was again targeted over its diversity programs.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a candidate for governor in Idaho’s 2022 election, formed a task force in August dedicated to discovering evidence of socialism, Marxism, communism and critical race theory on campus. More than 3,600 comments were submitted, most of which questioned the committee and its goals. None provided evidence of liberal indoctrination at Idaho colleges and universities.

In response to legislative pressure, the Idaho Board of Education announced in October that it would make some student fees optional beginning in the fall of 2022. Legislation directed the state’s colleges and universities to evaluate whether mandatory fees supported clubs or organizations that might conflict with students’ own beliefs and views. The higher ed institutions are expected to submit lists of optional fees to the legislature later this month.

The higher education budget cuts this year were backed by the libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation. Its president, Wayne Hoffman, hailed the House’s initial rejection of the higher ed budget in April. He referred to diversity and inclusion efforts as “radical indoctrination programs.”

“Lawmakers must instruct Idaho schools that no public funds should ever be used for social justice enterprises,” Hoffman said. “No state institution should be engaging in the promotion of social justice dogma.”

In a letter to state lawmakers, University of Idaho President C. Scott Green rejected Hoffman’s view.

“There is a troubling void of voices in the legislature standing up for the principles of critical thinking, the pursuit of knowledge, and the ability of students and faculty to explore ideas, examine the facts, and come to their own conclusions,” Green wrote, calling Hoffman’s lobbying efforts “misinformation and half-truths…directly impacting higher education funding by the Idaho Legislature.”

Hoffman said his next goal is cutting $20 million from Idaho’s colleges and universities in 2022.

“I’m not sure what’s worse than ‘hell to pay’ but whatever it is, Idaho’s colleges and universities and the State Board of Education have it coming in the 2022 legislative session,” Hoffman wrote earlier this month.

The poll results shared Wednesday are only the beginning for understanding student attitudes and perceptions. Of the initial findings, Idaho Board of Education Chief Academic Officer T.J. Bliss said, “We aren’t making any value statements about what that means, I’m just pointing out what the data says now. We are going to look at the data in ways to provide direction, guidance and actions for our institutions to take to gain value from the data.”

Bliss said more survey results could be released early next month. Board of Education staffers have been directed to develop an interactive dashboard that will share results online early in 2022.