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Boise State investigated whether a student was ‘degraded’ in class. Here’s what it found

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Over 100 students gathered at the Idaho Statehouse in protest of the Legislature’s H337 bill aimed at ‘indoctrination’ of students in its schools, including reference to “critical race theory.” They sat in the Senate gallery to hear the vote. | BY DARIN OSWALD

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Two months ago, an allegation emerged that a white student at Boise State University was demeaned in class during a discussion of “structural inequality.” That led to the suspension of a required course. Now an outside law firm retained by the university has found no evidence to substantiate the accusation.

The law firm’s report was publicly released Monday.

“No students who participated in the investigation reported that they were ever forced to apologize for the color of their skin,” reads the report on the investigation, which was conducted by Hawley Troxell, a Boise law firm. “Nor did any student report being personally singled out for their skin color or being subjected to taunts, name-calling, or other degrading behavior from an instructor or other students based on their skin color, beliefs or ideas.”

On March 15, Boise State received a complaint from a “community leader” who is not a student at the school alleging that he had viewed a video on a friend’s phone that showed a white student being “forced to apologize … for being ‘white’ or for the student’s ‘white privilege,’ ” and being taunted by other students, according to the report.

A day later, the university suspended all 55 sections of a course entitled University Foundations 200, a required course that had nearly 1,300 students enrolled during the spring semester. In a statement, the school said it had been made aware that a student or students may “have been humiliated and degraded in class.”

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In an interview with the Idaho Statesman on Monday afternoon, Boise State President Marlene Tromp said she would have investigated the charge before suspending the class had she thought it was less serious.

“If you’ve been told somebody has been treated abusively, you’ve got to stop that,” Tromp said.

She added that Boise State’s interim provost, Tony Roark, compared the issue the university faced to being told there’s a reported gas leak in a building.

“You don’t know where it is, but you’ve been told there is one. What do you do?” Tromp said. “You evacuate the building and then investigate to see if there’s a gas leak.”

On March 19, Boise State announced that it had hired Hawley Troxell to investigate the allegations and whether university policies had been violated.

The University Foundations classes, though divergent, generally pertain to ethics and diversity. The report states that the design of the course stems from feedback the university got from employers who wanted hires to “have familiarity with ethical frameworks within which decisions are made and the ability to work in diverse settings.”

According to the report, the university did not know which course the complainant’s allegation pertained to, but it “surmised” that it was a section of University Foundations based on the subject matter. The report does not identify the name of the complainant, but Tromp said that “it is a person who is very broadly respected, and whose words we took seriously.”

The course suspension lasted for about a week before classes resumed online only.

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HOW THE BSU INVESTIGATION PLAYED OUT

During its investigation, Hawley Troxell interviewed about 30 students, multiple instructors of the UF 200 course, and other university employees, the report said. The firm also reviewed class syllabus material and other course documents.

The firm dedicated an email address to the investigation and asked the nearly 3,000 students who had been enrolled in any section of the course during the fall 2020 or spring 2021 semester to submit concerns or information — either identifying themselves or anonymously — related to their experience in the class.

Though the firm did not uncover “any evidence” implicating any Boise State instructor in a violation of the school’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy, the school did find one instance a week before the complaint in which a student reportedly called an instructor’s logic “stupid” during a debate about universal health care in a UF 200 course. After the comment, other participants in the class objected to the student’s word choice. The student, who later told investigators that she had not called the instructor “stupid” but rather had called the “instructor’s logic” stupid, reportedly left the class early that day in tears.

Based on interviews with the concerned student, the instructor and eight other students in the section, the firm determined that the instructor, who told the class that she understood the student had intended to speak only about her logic and who checked in with the student after class, had responded “appropriately.”

The report notes that no other incidents the law firm uncovered came “anywhere near matching the alleged incident.”

While the investigation was ongoing, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill that, among other stipulations, banned schools from requiring students to “affirm” or “adopt” the belief that an individual could be responsible for historical actions committed by members of the same identity group. Hawley Troxell made clear in its report that the scope of its investigation did not comprehensively address the implications of the new bill on class discussions, but that “no students reported being directed or otherwise compelled to personally affirm, adopt or adhere to the tenets prohibited by (the bill).”

In a letter to university employees on Monday, Tromp wrote that the general counsels for the state’s public universities and the State Board of Education are developing “a clear understanding of this new legislation” and “will provide written guidance to all of our faculty as soon as it is available.”

The state board, which oversees Idaho’s state universities, will conduct surveys of university students this fall to see if “any tweak” to the schools’ academic freedom and nondiscrimination policies is warranted, Mike Keckler, a spokesperson for the board, told the Statesman.

“What the board wants to do is collect objective data and hear what the opinions are on campus about some of these issues and claims that have been made,” he said.

COMPLAINANT DIDN’T PROVIDE KEY DETAILS

The law firm’s report notes that the firm eventually interviewed the complainant “after several failed attempts” and that this individual refused to provide additional details about what he had reported.

He “declined to describe in any detail what he has seen or heard from students other than that it was ‘really inappropriate,’ ” and “stated that he did not have possession of the video he had seen and declined to provide any information on how it could be obtained,” the report said.

In early May, lawmakers cut Boise State’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, by $1.5 million after many Republican lawmakers objected to what they called social justice programming in schools as well as to the university’s attempts to create a more ethnically diverse student body. On Thursday, Tromp announced that the university would be founding an Institute for Advancing American Values to explore controversial topics.

In her letter to colleagues on Monday, Tromp wrote that critics of higher education have “publicly advised students to record their classes,” which different groups on campus will view as either “productive” or “destructive.”

“People across the political spectrum are often seeking the same thing — a free expression and exchange of ideas — and fear the same thing, the loss of that free expression and exchange of ideas,” she said.

Tromp noted that the March allegations came at a time of “pitched national and political tension regarding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and the role of higher education.”

She added, “We are pleased to know that there were no policy violations, and we recognize that, in the new climate facing our nation today, we must ensure that we are responsive and thoughtful moving forward and that our students understand, with clarity, that we teach them how to think, not what to think.”

DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATOR: I’M NOT SURPRISED

State Sen. Melissa Wintrow, a Boise Democrat who was an instructor at Boise State, said she wasn’t surprised that the university found no evidence of the alleged incident. She said the report shows that Republican legislators are “willing to go down a rabbit hole” and pass reactive legislation without verifying things.

“It’s not surprising that my colleagues jumped on it, diverted attention, defunded and harmed education, while we didn’t address the real problems,” Wintrow said. “Our state is in trouble if we don’t start electing people that actually use their brains and have more reason.”

Gov. Brad Little, in a statement Monday, said the investigation “provides encouraging findings as we all continue to work together to ensure the free exchange of ideas can occur in all places of learning in Idaho.”

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who co-chairs an “indoctrination” task force, and Rep. Ron Nate, a Rexburg Republican who has been outspoken against Boise State, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Layne McInelly, president of the Idaho Education Association, said the investigation underscores that legislation passed this year and the “attack on public education are built upon untruths and false narratives.”

“The radical right is misleading the public in a manufactured political gambit aimed at damaging all levels of Idaho’s public education system, which in turn impacts the students and families they serve,” McInelly said in a statement to the Statesman.

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