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Republican lawmakers to hold hearings on what they call lack of ‘intellectual diversity’ at UW campuses

Announcement comes one month after UW System free speech survey found some conservative students reported feeling political pressure in class

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Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin state Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A Republican legislator who has accused colleges of “indoctrinating students” will hold hearings next month on whether a lack of what he calls “intellectual diversity” at UW System campuses is hurting the quality of education. The push follows a campus free speech survey that found some conservative students reported self-censoring views in class.

During a press conference Tuesday, state Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee will hold two hearings in April to explore the issue. The first hearing on April 6 will be held in Madison and will feature testimony from business leaders.

“We will look at how the lack of intellectual diversity affects graduates and employers in the business world,” Murphy said. He said the UW System has three constituent groups: students, taxpayers and businesses.

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While Murphy didn’t define what intellectual diversity means, he’s been critical of how UW System campuses respond to conservative speakers.

In October, nationally known conservative Matt Walsh spoke at UW-Madison during his “What is a Woman” tour, which is highly critical of policies supporting transgender individuals and gender-reassignment surgeries. Around 100 students protested the event outside the campus’s student union, but Walsh’s speech wasn’t disrupted.

A January press release from Murphy named a graduate student who was accused of ripping down flyers promoting the event and claimed it was “another example of the University indoctrinating students, not educating them.”

During the Tuesday press conference, Murphy, who has supported bills to punish universities for violating free speech, was asked whether he might introduce legislation governing intellectual diversity on campus.

“I have no preconceived notions of where that’s going right now,” Murphy said. “We’ll wait and see what the experts are telling us and then go from there.”

State Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, told reporters at the press conference that there were “growing ideological tensions on UW Campuses that may have a negative impact on the quality of education being delivered.”

“Is there a correlation between the level of intellectual diversity on our campuses and our ability to attract the best and brightest students and faculty?” Nedweski said. “How can we measure the impact of ideological tensions on students’ development of critical thinking skills that Wisconsin employers require from our workforce?”

The announcement of the hearings comes a month after the UW System released results of a privately funded campus free speech survey of students that found some who identify as conservative felt pressure to agree with political or ideological viewpoints expressed in class.

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, serves on the Colleges and Universities Committee with Murphy. She said Republicans have cherry-picked results from the survey and Murphy’s hearings will only feature his invited guests.

Emerson said there’s a difference between withholding views because others might find them offensive and free speech being stifled by the government.

“There’s some education that needs to happen about free speech and civil dialogue, not only in our colleges and universities settings with the students, but I’d go as far as to say within the Legislature itself,” Emerson said.

State Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, also serves on the committee and told WPR he finds it “highly ironic” and “a little hypocritical” for Murphy and other Republicans to claim they want diversity of thought when they’ve supported legislation aimed at limiting how schools teach things like diversity or perspectives on race and disability.

“It almost feels like that my conservative colleagues want 100 percent pure safe spaces in order for their speakers or their ideas to be aired out without any degree of either protest or criticism or any of that,” Anderson said. “And I think that that’s not how free speech works in a free society.”

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