University of Idaho President Scott Green said Wednesday claims from right-wing groups that higher education in the state is “indoctrinating students with social justice ideals” are misleading at best.

Earlier this month, Idaho legislators slashed $409,000 from Boise State University’s bottom line in apparent repudiation of what some conservative groups decry as so-called “social justice” programming in taxpayer-supported universities.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, an organization that has been sharply critical of Idaho’s higher education institutions, released a report March 4 that takes aim at the UI’s efforts to promote multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion in its undergraduate and graduate curricula.

While not quite as bad as BSU, the report warns that “if left unchecked (the UI) will systematically, thoroughly plan their way into a Social Justice university in the next decade.”

Speaking to a virtual meeting of the League of Women Voters of Moscow on Wednesday, Green said the UI takes exception with this definition of the term “social justice” and that the exchange of ideas that takes place in a university setting does not constitute an “agenda.”

While groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation have gotten some traction attacking what they call “social justice agendas” in higher education, Green said the UI has been able to respond to legislative inquiries on the subject to their satisfaction. He said those legislators who see university curriculum as problematic or indoctrination are “a little out of step with what’s happening on the ground.”

“We’re viewpoint neutral, we invite people from the left and the right to come to campus to speak and we let the ideas speak for themselves. That’s what a higher education is all about,” Green said. “Most legislators agree with that and they see that we work hard to make that happen and they support us.”

Also Wednesday, Green touted the UI’s success in staying open to in-person instruction during the pandemic without significantly exacerbating local COVID-19 case numbers. He said to date, the UI has completed more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests and the campus community’s positivity rate remains well below that of the city of Moscow and of the state.

He said unsurprisingly, the pandemic has had an effect on enrollment — but with numbers down just 3 percent among degree-seeking, full-time students, he said the dip is manageable and compares favorably with what’s happening to universities nationwide.

While applications and resident admissions are down by 4 and 5 percent compared to last year, Green said overall admissions are up by 7 percent thanks to strong interest from out-of-state students.

“We’re marketing our best value ranking and using the ‘we’re closer than you think’ headline with out-of-state students and nonresident applicants are responding,” he said. “They’re up around 27 percent compared to last year and nonresident admissions are up 38 percent, indicating a very high quality pool.”

Green said initiatives started before the onset of the pandemic intended to repair the UI’s budgetary position have been helpful in weathering the current crisis. He said following these measures, the university’s employee headcount was down by about 160 positions at the end of the 2020 fiscal year and most of those will remain unfilled as duties are reprioritized.

Green said while the UI lost about $7 million when it had to shut down to in-person instruction last spring and revenues in the current year are down about $12 million, expenses have also decreased and the university has been largely successful in stabilizing its budget.

“Had we not been able to stay open, we were projecting losses that probably would have been an excess of $30 million. I think we could still end up with a surplus at year end,” Green said. “ … We’ve got some big expenses still coming through the pipeline due to COVID. But we also have some relief coming from the federal government, so I think we’ll do OK.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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