University of South Dakota mum on probe as free speech enforcement meeting looms
Earlier this year, University of South Dakota officials began a probe into a decision to cancel a Hawaiian Day-themed party amid accusations of cultural appropriation.
The status of that probe, some three months after it was launched, is anyone’s guess.
The College Fix has sent multiple emails over the last two weeks to its media affairs division asking whether the investigation has concluded and details on its results. They’ve been ignored.
The party had been planned earlier this year by the Student Bar Association of the University of South Dakota’s School of Law, but was reportedly told by administrators their theme was offensive. In response, student organizers changed the theme to “Beach Day.”
The association sent out a Facebook message apologizing for the event, but added they would still hand out flower leis — until they were advised that was also culturally “inappropriate.”
The incident raised eyebrows because administration’s heavy-handed approach to this party came soon after the Board of Regents approved a new policy designed to protect free speech.
When the investigation into the cancellation was launched, the Board of Regents cheered the investigation, according to the Argus Leader. President Kevin Schieffer said in a news release that the board “has made it very clear in policy that neither professors nor administrators can block or unduly interfere with free speech simply because some might find it offensive.”
An email sent last week by The College Fix to a representative of the Board of Regents on the matter was also not returned.
But the matter may be raised at a meeting set for June 26 at South Dakota State University. The public hearing aims to “develop the most effective and responsible means” of complying with a recently enacted state law that requires public universities to promote intellectual diversity.
The Argus Leader reports that “concerns that USD students’ right to free speech was potentially violated in changing the party theme from ‘Hawaiian Day’ to ‘Beach Day,’ plus the elimination of leis for the party, prompted legislators to revive a previously defeated campus free speech bill that was quickly passed at the Capitol following the USD controversy.”
That law requires the Board of Regents, which governs the state’s public colleges, to prepare an annual report that “sets forth all the actions taken by each institution to promote and ensure intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas; and (2) describes any events or occurrences that impeded intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.”
Next comes enforcement.
In a letter obtained by The College Fix, the Board of Regents’ President Schieffer said that the new law “presents significant challenges in capturing all actions of each institution.”
But that’s why the board is planning the meeting, “in an effort to develop the most effective and responsible means of fulfilling the letter intent of the new legislative requirement.”
Some are already weighing in on the matter, including two right-of-center education watchdog groups that offered insights on the implementation of the new South Dakota law.
The North Carolina-based James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal outlined several objectives that it encouraged South Dakota higher education institutions to adopt, one of which was to eliminate bias response teams. The group also encouraged campuses to host debates and discussion panels with speakers representing different viewpoints. It also called for disciplinary action against anyone “who materially and substantially interferes with the free expression of others.”
Meanwhile, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, suggested in a letter to the board that campus leaders, in order to promote intellectual diversity in the classroom, should adopt a series of reforms.
These reforms include public syllabi, “to allow the public to judge whether classes are intellectually diverse,” and establishing “micro-grants” for professors who change their courses to teach “all sides of major controversies.”
Wood also called for South Dakota campus leaders to “bar discriminatory use of campus funding” and encouraged them to allow religious clubs to have statements of faith and codes of conduct for their leaders.
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