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 higher education officials say it remains unclear how the legislation could affect them, too.
The law, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed late last month as part of the new state budget, does include a clause that “nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to limit the academic freedom of faculty members of the university system of New Hampshire and the community college system of New Hampshire to conduct research, publish, lecture, or teach in the academic setting.”
Based on that language, Dottie Morris, associate vice president for institutional equity and diversity at Keene State College, said the law “does seem like it’s more directed at K-12” public schools than colleges and universities.
N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, a former longtime Keene State administrator and interim president, said this clause does indeed protect academic freedom on college campuses.
“The authors here have avoided conflicts with the public university system, whereas they are very explicit about their intent on constraining both public employees and employers in a county, city or state government, including school districts,” said Kahn, who voted against the measure.
Nicholas Germana, a Keene State history professor, added that the faculty union’s collective bargaining agreement with the university system also includes a clause protecting academic freedom. But, he added, professors “don’t really know yet at this point” how the new law could be interpreted on campuses.
“I think there are real questions about what it means for us,” said Germana, who specializes in German history. For instance, based on his reading of the law, Germana said he does not know whether its ban on teaching certain topics extends beyond U.S. history.
“This legislation is just so broad, it’s not clear where the historical or cultural or geographical boundaries are around these topics, and where supposedly the boundary line is between understanding historical oppression and oppression today,” he said.
Among other provisions, the new law, which started as House Bill 544 before a version of the proposal was incorporated into the state budget, prohibits public employees from teaching “that an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The language in the bill has drawn sharp criticism from educators statewide, including in the Monadnock Region. Additionally, more than half of Gov. Chris Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, including Morris, who was the group’s vice chairwoman, resigned last week in protest over Sununu’s decision to sign the law, saying it “aims to censor conversations essential to advancing equity and inclusion in our state.”
Supporters of the legislation have expressed concern over the teaching of critical race theory, a scholarly framework that approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power and holds that systemic racism is a part of American culture, embedded in policies, laws and institutions.
And as Keene State faculty members continue to grapple with the new law’s potential effects, Franklin Pierce University in Rindge is also trying to determine how private schools fit into the legislation.
“At this point, the impact on universities, public and private, remains unknown,” Pierre Morton, the university’s chief diversity officer, said 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 standpoint.”
Kahn said he does not believe the law applies to private schools like Franklin Pierce. And if he has his way, the new law won’t be on the books for long. He said he plans to introduce a bill in the fall to repeal the so-called “divisive concepts” language that was included in the state budget.
“Some legislators, as well as the governor, apparently, felt that they had to act on this, and said that if it were a separate piece of legislation, they would have voted against it, or the governor would have vetoed it,” Kahn said. “... I also think it’s important for the will of the Legislature to be expressed without the threat of a budget stalemate. So, now we have a budget. Let’s consider this legislation independently and see what the will of the Legislature and the governor are.”