Commentary

Senate Bill 202: What Exactly is “Intellectual Diversity?”

February 19, 2024 7:00 am

Professors are targeted in a bill now moving through the House promoting “intellectual diversity” on college campuses. (Getty Images)

A great deal of the discussion around Senate Bill 202 has focused on its impact on university faculty, potentially the loss of tenure. But, with apologies to my friends in the academy, that is not the most important and most dangerous provision of the bill. 

The central revision of current law in SB 202 takes all instances of the phrase cultural diversity and modifies them to read cultural and intellectual diversity. On the face of it, that seems a harmless addition. Who after all could be opposed to intellectual diversity?

But what exactly is the target of this effort to make “intellectual diversity” a central organizing principle, important enough that the state is willing to fire any professor, even those who are tenured, for violating it?  It seems likely that it’s about more than freedom of expression for English literature scholars who might differ over the proper translation of Chaucer. 

No, SB 202 is clearly intended to limit the ability of educational communities—in this case higher education— to talk about race.  The bill is strikingly similar to a bill passed in Florida, SB 266, which ended tenure for university faculty in that state by instituting a five year review for all faculty. The outcome of that review is determined in large part on faculty adherence to the law’s ban on teaching about DEI. SB 202 simply replaces the term DEI with “intellectual diversity.” Politically astute, but also deeply disingenuous.  

In early September 2020, Christopher Rufo appeared on Fox News and directly appealed to then President Trump to ban critical race theory from government or government-supported trainings. Since that moment, critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion have been among the top priorities of right-wing legislators across the nation. Like the right-wing campaign against critical race theory, terms like “intellectual diversity” and “hostile learning environment” have been purposefully employed by right wing intellectuals to attack the academy by using “the language that the left has deployed so effectively on behalf of its own agendas.” 

Diversity is the target

Proponents of SB 202 and copycat legislation in other states argue that they are protecting the rights of DEI opponents in danger of being silenced in university communities that value diversity. But those who have lost their jobs and been driven from their communities as a result of the anti-DEI campaign have not been opponents of CRT, but advocates for cultural diversity and racial justice.

Superintendents, such as the first Black superintendent in Berkeley County, South Carolina who was fired as part of an anti-CRT campaign by Moms for Liberty backed school board members. James Whitfield, driven from his position as principal of the high school in Colleyville, Texas after he wrote a letter to students opposing systemic racism after George Floyd’s murder. Teachers in states where these bills have passed, who can be stripped of their teaching licenses and see their school lose its accreditation if they speak their mind about racism and discrimination. 

Like HB 1138 before it, SB 202 is grounded in an unfortunate tradition of attempting to silence those who speak out against racial injustice. Slaveholders at the Constitutional convention succeeded in removing the words “slave” or “slavery” from the Constitution, and disallowed any attempt to raise the topic in Congress for 20 years. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was repeatedly jailed and branded a Communist by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for the “crime” of challenging the deeply ensconced racism of White America in the 50’s and 60’s. 

The code word “intellectual diversity,” like all attempts to silence talk about current or historical racism, is not about the free speech of those who are seeking to erase DEI from college campuses. Those voices, having passed anti-CRT bills in over 20 states across the nation, are in no danger of being silenced. Rather, SB 202 is yet another not-very-transparent attempt on the part of the minority to hide their increasing targeting of marginalized groups in our state and nation — by making it illegal for University educators to talk about historical and current discrimination. 

By providing a vehicle for hiding racist actions, SB 202 is itself deeply racist. It would truly be a source of shame for our state if the General Assembly mandates silence about justice, fairness, and equity in higher education in the state of Indiana.

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Russ Skiba
Russ Skiba

Dr. Russ Skiba is Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and former Director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. His research focuses on school violence and school discipline, particularly racial/ethnic disparities in suspension and expulsion. He has testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and both houses of Congress. He co-founded the University Alliance for Racial Justice, a group of university-based educators dedicated to supporting the struggle against discrimination and disadvantage, and helped establish the Indiana Educational Equity network, a statewide coalition devoted to educational equity for Indiana’s youth. The most recent Education Week poll identified Skiba as one of the top 200 scholars in the nation influencing educational policy.

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