A Mississippi think tank calls for a ‘diversity of thought’ audit at public colleges. Will it gain traction with lawmakers?

Dive Brief:

  • A conservative think tank in Mississippi is calling for an audit of the state’s public colleges to ensure they support diverse thinking, one of a series of recommendations coming as Republicans across the U.S. rail against critical race theory.
  • A report from the Mississippi Center for Public Policy also urges donors to withhold money from public institutions “until specific steps have been taken to guarantee intellectual freedom and diversity on campus.”
  • If an audit discovers colleges violating state law, state officials could potentially withhold funding, fire administrators and faculty, and reject administrative plans, the report says.

Dive Insight:

Critical race theory, a 40-year-old concept, teaches in part that racism is systemically ingrained and has informed much of public policy. The theory has become a rallying point for Republicans, many of whom view it as divisive and a method of shaming White individuals.

The academic framework came to the national forefront a year ago after former President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning federal grantees from teaching certain concepts, such as that the U.S. is inherently racist. 

Trump’s order is no longer in place. But state policymakers have taken up the cause, and several have passed laws limiting instruction of critical race theory. The term’s definition varies in the legislation, and some bills only target the framework in K-12 schools. 

The Mississippi think tank’s report signals that college leaders continueto navigate the charged issue — a key challenge because political involvement in curricula is anathema to many faculty members and their academic freedom.

In the state, prominent Republicans, including Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, have blasted critical race theory, promising to expel it from classrooms. 

The report could offer them a legislative map for doing so. It contains a model bill that would stop public schools, including colleges, from forcing students to adhere to particular tenets. They include that people should feel responsible for actions committed by those of their same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin.

It likens critical race theory to “orthodox Marxism” and argues the state’s public colleges are promoting it. For instance, it calls out a statement from the sociology department at Mississippi State University condemning the fatal shooting earlier this year of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

But the policy center does not describe the context that led to the department publishing the statement, only drawing attention to its use of the term “white violence.” The department characterized the history of White violence as existing in “everyday interactions and social institutions.”

Mississippi public colleges’ governing system should audit the institutions in its purview to ensure “a genuine spectrum of opinion and diversity,” according to the report. A spokesperson for the board of trustees did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. 

Elsewhere, higher ed and state officials have already sought to curtail the teaching of critical race theory. 

The University of Nebraska’s regent board in August rejected an attempt from one of its members, who is a gubernatorial candidate in that state. Critics of the anti-critical race theory resolution that the board voted down said it would damage the system’s reputation and hamper its ability to confront racial inequities. 

That month, the attorney general of Arkansas also issued an opinion that instruction of the theory could violate state and federal law. The opinion generated skepticism from at least one civil liberties watchdog.