The Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges held a public hearing on Thursday for three bills on racial education and free speech, including a proposed change to ethnic studies course requirements at UW System schools.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison adopted its ethnic studies course requirement in 2003 to better educate students on challenges faced by marginalized groups in the United States and “foster an understanding and appreciation of diversity” on campus. The policy requires all students to complete three credits of approved ethnic studies coursework.
SB 792, introduced by Senate Republicans, would allow any UW System student to substitute a required ethnic studies course with a class on the U.S. Constitution.
The bill’s authors, including Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), are worried that Democratic-identifying professors, especially those who teach ethnic studies classes, are narrowing the perspectives considered in the subject. They believe offering courses on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights would provide broader opportunities for students to engage in cultural conversations.
“The goal of cultural understanding and social harmony is indisputably laudable,” Stroebel testified. “However, divisive cultural disagreements and polarization in recent years clearly show that trying to forcibly educate someone into a particular worldview is counterproductive.”
UW-Madison Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Zumbrunnen, who currently teaches historical American political thought, doubts that a course on the U.S. Constitution addresses the University’s intent behind the ethnic studies requirement. Zumbrunnen testified that his classes “pursue some very worth learning objectives,” but are “separate and distinct from the learning goals of the ethnic studies requirement.”
Senate Republicans also heard public comments on Thursday for SB 409, which would ban race or sex stereotyping in student instruction or mandatory staff training at any Wisconsin public university or technical college. The bill prohibits teaching that any race or sex is superior to another, that an individual bears responsibility for past injustices committed by a member of their race or sex and multiple other racial education topics.
“No student or campus employee should be told to hate themselves,” Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger) said while testifying in favor of the bill. “Our universities can have vigorous academic discussions on important topics without humiliating any students or employees.”
Under SB 409, schools would also be required to post updated class syllabuses online for review. If a school’s curriculum violates the law, 5 to 10 percent of its state aid may be withheld depending on the adoption of a substitute amendment proposed by Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere).
Zumbrunnen said he and other UW faculty members are worried about potential financial penalties, especially since they believe the bill’s racial education expectations conflict with critical components of U.S. history.
“I myself routinely teach materials that a reasonable reader might conclude engage in race and sex stereotyping as defined by the proposed legislation. It might make me think twice about assigning texts by authors ranging from Malcolm X to Frederick Douglass to John C. Calhoun, texts that are in fact essential to understanding the American political tradition.”
Governor Evers vetoed a similar bill last week, which called for a ban on anti-racist and anti-sexist education in all Wisconsin public schools. Thursday’s bill also advocates for similar limits on racial education, but only applies to public Wisconsin universities and technical colleges.
Democrats say the new bill is a continuation of Republicans’ assault on “critical race theory,” a legal philosophy developed by UW alumna Kimberlé Crenshaw and other legal scholars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The theory, often taught in graduate education, asserts that institutional racism against non-white Americans is embedded in American society and explains many of the nation’s current racial inequities.
Debates over critical race theory in K-12 schools recently surfaced in the Mequon-Thiensville school district, where four members were recalled this past summer by concerned parents and community members. All four incumbent members up for re-election maintained their seats in the November elections.
To further address conservatives’ education concerns, Republicans introduced another bill on Thursday which would eliminate qualified immunity protections for UW System campus administrators.
Currently, qualified immunity guarantees administrators legal protection against financial liability for violating citizens’ rights. However, under the new bill, students or employees could sue administrators for financial damages if they feel their first amendment rights were violated.
“Fostering the free exchange of ideas is vital to the lifeblood of our universities,” Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) said in support of the initiative. “This bill will hold college administrators accountable if they violate the free speech rights of college students.”
UW-Madison last updated free speech guidelines in August 2020 to reflect pandemic-era safety measures. In a statement addressing the update, the university assured students it “believes strongly in the rights of free speech and expression and in the right to assemble for purposes of voicing differing opinions.”
Free speech watchdog organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives UW-Madison a “yellow” rating for First Amendment protections due to “ambiguous” harassment and discrimination policies. FIRE’s rating does not cite qualified immunity for UW-Madison administrators as a free speech concern.
A 2020 study from UW-Madison’s Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Legislation also raised concerns over free speech rights on campus. The study concluded over 60% of students on campus believe government should punish hate speech, and over 50% believe government should restrict the speech of racially insensitive people
However, UW professors Mark Copelovitch, Jon Pevehouse and Jessica Weeks criticized the Thompson Center’s conclusions, which they say are based on flawed research design.
“The report violates key tenets of social science research, including rigorous research design and faithful reporting of the full results of empirical analysis, the UW professors said in a Cap Times column last year, As a result, many of the conclusions presented are not supported by its own data,” the three UW-Madison professors wrote in a Cap Times column last year.
Still, conservative UW students from across the state lamented to the committee on Thursday that they felt pressured to hide their ideology to avoid harassment or grade deductions from left-leaning professors.
“I’ve had this experience where I put so much time into a paper, but I get a lower grade than when I just throw something together that the teacher wants,” Anika Horowitz, a sophomore and member of the UW-Madison College Republicans testified. “It feels like you’re going up against Goliath, and you’re David.”
Despite these concerns, UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said no free speech lawsuits have been made against the University during her seven-year tenure. Zumbrunnen responded to conservative students’ concerns in his own testimony, encouraging any student who experiences academic discrimination to schedule an appointment with his office.
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.