Graduates of Bowie State University put messages on their mortarboard hats during the school’s graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. Bowie State is a historically Black university. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education said Friday a bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” would not affect college instruction.
Jim Purcell, the executive director of ACHE, told the commission that he believed that HB 7, sponsored by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, gave instructors room to discuss topics.
Oliver said in an interview Friday he believes that the bill does not limit free speech or teaching subjects like Black history.
“There’s just not a lot you can do to limit speech,” Oliver said about secondary education.
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Oliver’s bill would ban instructors in public schools in Alabama from requiring students to “adopt or adhere to” ideas that some groups should bear guilt for violent or discriminatory actions against others. A similar bill passed the House but not the Senate last year.
The legislation drew sharp criticism from educators, who said it was an attempt to prevent the teaching of Black history and could leave educators subject to lawsuits.
Purcell said Section Four of the bill allows teachers at colleges and universities to teach divisive concepts as long as it is historically accurate; free speech rights are promoted, and there is no endorsement or expectation of students agreeing.
“So, you can sort of see that the rhetoric in the synopsis which isn’t law is much more powerful than actually what is stated in the legislation,” he said.
He also called attention to a resolution from the Republican Party that would limit diversity efforts on school campuses. The Alabama GOP also adopted a resolution to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion policies at public institutions, according to the Al.com Ed Lab.
Purcell cited a 2019 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that protected free speech on campus.
“So, what happened in the last three, four years is a question,” he said.
Universities across the country have been facing state-level efforts limit diversity policies on campus. A recent analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education has found 21 bills filed since December to limit DEI efforts on campus.
Purcell told the commission that he believes that there is “no better curriculum” than one that requires critical thinking about real world issues, including diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, to help prepare students for the “real world.”
He said that colleges are safe spaces for students to explore new ideas and learn different perspectives. He said that, in the future, these students will be solving these problems.
“I find a college environment as a safe place as you can,” he said. “We certainly can’t do it at Thanksgiving.”
Updated at 7:09 p.m. with comments from Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville.
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