Schools uncertain of ‘divisive ideas’ legislation’s influence

As public schools in the Monadnock region work to determine the potential impact of a new state law banning the teaching of certain so-called “divisive concepts”, local college officials remain unclear how the legislation could affect them.

The bill, which Governor Chris Sununu signed as part of the new state budget late last month, contains a clause that “nothing in this subdivision may be construed as impairing the academic freedom of faculty members in the New Hampshire university system and the community college system from New Hampshire to research, publish, teach, or teach in an academic setting. “

Using that language, Dottie Morris, vice president of institutional justice and diversity at Keene State College, said the law “appears to be aimed at K-12 public schools rather than colleges and universities.”

NH Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, a former longtime Keene state administrator and interim president, said this clause actually protects academic freedom on college campuses.

“The authors here have avoided conflicts with the public university system while making clear their intention to restrict both public employees and employers in any county, city or state government, including school districts,” said Kahn, who voted against the measure.

Nicholas Germana, history professor at Keene, added that the faculty union’s collective agreement with the university system also includes a clause to protect academic freedom. But professors, he added, “don’t really know yet” how the new law could be interpreted on campus.

“I think there are real questions about what that means for us,” said Germana, who specializes in German history. For example, Germana said that because of his reading of the law, he did not know whether the prohibition on teaching certain subjects went beyond US history.

“This legislation is just so broad that it is not clear where the historical or cultural or geographical boundaries on these issues are and what is supposed to be the line between understanding historical oppression and oppression today,” he said.

Among other things, the new law, which began as House Bill 544, before any version of the proposal was included in the state budget, prohibits public servants from teaching “that a person because of their age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race , Creed, skin color, marital status, marital status, mental or physical disability, religion or national origin, is consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist or oppressive by nature. “

The wording of the bill has sparked sharp criticism from educators across the country, including in the Monadnock region. In addition, more than half of Sununu’s Advisory Board on Diversity and Inclusion, including Morris who was the group’s vice-chair, resigned last week in protest of Sununu’s decision to sign the law and inclusion in our state. “

Proponents of the legislation have expressed concern about the teaching of critical racial theory, a scientific framework that approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power, and that establishes that systemic racism is a part of American culture, embedded in guidelines and Laws and institutions.

And while Keene State faculty members continue to grapple with the potential impact of the new law, Franklin Pierce University in Rindge is also trying to figure out how private schools fit into the law.

“At this point in time, the impact on public and private universities is still unknown,” said Pierre Morton, the university’s chief diversity officer, in a written statement. He added that Franklin Pierce will keep an eye on “how the bill would be implemented and operationalized from a legislative perspective”.

Kahn said he doesn’t think the law applies to private schools like Franklin Pierce. And if he has his way, the new law won’t be in the books for long. He said he plans to introduce a bill in the fall to repeal the so-called “divisive concepts” contained in the state budget.

“Some lawmakers, as well as the governor, apparently felt they had to act on this and said if it was a separate law they would have voted against it or the governor would have vetoed it,” Kahn said. “I also think that it is important that the will of the legislature is expressed without the threat of a budgetary bottleneck. So now we have a budget. Let’s look at this legislation independently and see what the will of the legislature and the governor is. “

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