Walking on Eggshells

Fearing a conservative backlash, Utah Valley State College trustees tell professors to revamp new course requirement.
August 15, 2006

Some professors and students at Utah Valley State College are a bit confused after the institution’s Board of Trustees asked last week that conservative political ideologies be taken into account regarding a planned course requirement for 2008-9.

Academic committees have worked for nearly five years to develop language for a new “global/intercultural” general education requirement for students, which was motivated in part by December 1999 recommendations from the Utah State Board of Regents's Task Force on General Education. The report said that an educated person should “appreciate diversity” and possess the abilities “to integrate ethical, cultural, and historical considerations in the humanities” and “to relate another’s humanity to one’s own.”

In constructing the new requirement, which would call for students to take one course in any number of departments, committee members interviewed multiple faculty members, students and others from colleges in the state. They ultimately decided that courses satisfying the requirement must study cultural differences; advocate critical assessments of such differences and their meaning; and pay particular attention to groups within global, local, or campus community contexts that “many of our students are unlikely to have examined.”

“We tried to be diplomatic in developing it,” Bill Evenson, chair of the college’s General Education Committee, explained Monday. He also noted that most other Utah colleges and universities have general education requirements that reflect the same tenets.

On Thursday, however, some unexpected concerns were raised by more than one member of the institution’s board at its summer meeting. The Associated Press reports that trustees were worried about "sensitive issues" that could offend the "conservative community.” Members of the board did not return calls for elaboration on Monday.

While President Bill Sederburg told the trustees that he’s happy to have the course requirements sent back and modified, others are not so sanguine.

Evenson, for one, doesn’t know what more needs to be done. “I’m not entirely sure how they want us to tighten up the phrases,” he said. “I’m going to contact them and ask for suggestions before the next board meeting in October.” He had expected a proposal supporting the requirement to pass at the board meeting on Thursday.

He added, though, that the conservative talk wasn’t entirely unexpected. “Our committee was aware that some people think we should reflect the values of our conservative community,” he said. “But we have always advocated an atmosphere of academic freedom.”

Joseph Vogel, a recent graduate of Utah Valley State College, has seen tensions flare on campus regarding political ideology in the past. He was the student body vice president in 2004 when he invited filmmaker Michael Moore to speak on campus, sparking an uproar among local politicians and citizens. He’s written a new book about the controversy, “ Free Speech 101: The Utah Valley Uproar Over Michael Moore," which is scheduled for national release in October.

The author said Monday that the climate on campus hasn’t changed much over the last two years. “I feel that certain conservative people are trying to control the curriculum,” he said. “But I’m surprised that this kind of class would raise eyebrows.”

At the same time, Vogel said he believes that many professors at the college are liberal. “But on the whole, it’s pretty balanced,” he added. “Students should be able to sort of the information presented to them and come to their own conclusions.”

Peter Walters, a senior majoring in analytic communications and social science, believes that the requirement is needed at the institution. He works at the international office at Utah Valley State where he assists international students with their questions and American students with study abroad.

“I’ve spent three years of my life living as a minority on other continents -- Africa and Asia -- where I have learned much,” said Walters. “Seeing the way people of other cultures approach problems in daily life is like mental floss; it loosens up my calcified perspectives.”

Walters was saddened when he learned that the trustees have not yet approved the requirement. “It makes sense to me to have it,” he said, “and I don’t see how the community could possibly be offended by it.”


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