We press Boise State's president on why she temporarily suspended 52 classes over an unsubstantiated secondhand complaint

click to enlarge We press Boise State's president on why she temporarily suspended 52 classes over an unsubstantiated secondhand complaint
Boise State University
Boise State University President Marlene Tromp
It's, let's say, an interesting time to be the president of an Idaho university.

"I'll tell you that it's been one grave challenge after another," Boise State University President Marlene Tromp tells the Inlander. "I hope no other university has to experience what we experienced, in part because we experienced it."

In the past few months, Tromp has faced withering criticism both from Idaho's far-right Legislature and from advocates of academic freedom who condemn the state's Legislature.

In one way, the results of an independent investigation into Boise State was something of an exoneration when it was released last week: The complaint that spurred the investigation — a "concerned community leader" said they’d watched of a video showing a Boise State student being forced to apologize for being White and being subjected to mockery before fleeing their college classroom in tears — turned out to be groundless. While one student did exit a Zoom class in tears after disagreeing with her classmates, she wasn't forced to apologize for being White and told the investigators that she didn't feel like the instructor was disrespectful in any way.

But in another way, it just made Boise State look worse: Based on that vague secondhand complaint — without knowing which class, student or teacher was involved —  Tromp took the radical step of temporarily suspending 52 classes in the diversity-oriented “University Foundations 200” course. Even after the classes were allowed to continue after a week, it was only in a prerecorded online format.

Though the report claimed that "temporarily suspending the UF 200 courses was appropriate,” Adam Steinbaugh, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told the Inlander that his academic-freedom legal group condemned the decision as not “legitimate, warranted, or proportional.”

He said he’d never seen a wholesale suspension of an entire course before, calling it a “drastic action designed to assure legislators that the university’s leadership was listening.”

After all, for months legislators and far-right groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation have deplored what they see as a toxic brew of "social justice ideology" on Idaho's campuses.
In a recent recording leaked by her vociferous critics at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Tromp compared herself to Cassandra, the mythical Greek prophet who foresaw the destruction of Troy, but, since nobody believed her, wasn't able to stop it.

But when the Inlander pressed Tromp on the university's controversies Wednesday, she displayed a much more optimistic attitude, arguing that the university will come out far more prepared to navigate a particularly angry moment in our culture. 

"It is an exciting time. Because it's a moment of intense conflict, and a university can be a place where people can be in dialogue," Tromp says. " And right now in our nation, there are a lot of people who aren't in dialogue anymore."

Boise State didn't try to figure out if the complaint was true before suspending classes

It was Tromp, after a discussion with the faculty senate and the University's academic leadership, who made the decision to suspend all UF 200 classes.

"I wouldn't have made a decision if I hadn't had that conversation with them and if they weren't in agreement that it was a very serious concern," Tromp says. "It wasn't something that any of us was elated to do."

She says she's not aware of any example of any other university suspending classes on that scale, but she says that leadership felt they didn't really have a choice, considering that they didn't know what class section the alleged incident had occurred in.

"Our provost has used the metaphor: It's a little bit like being told there's a gas leak in the building, but you don't know where it is," Tromp says. "Somebody walks into the building and says, 'I smell gas. I know there's a gas leak in that building.' It always feels dramatic to clear the building to find the gas leak, and that's what we felt like we were doing."

Gas leaks aside, Boise State has had to deal with bomb threats before. In 2019, a State Board of Education meeting was delayed due to a bomb threat in a Boise State building. But in that case, the student union building wasn't evacuated, and the board meeting resumed the very next day.

By contrast, in a case where no lives were at risk, 52 classes — with 36 faculty members and 1,300 students — were suspended for a week and then all moved to an online, prerecorded format with limited student-teacher interaction.

Tromp says she reached out to other leaders for advice.

"I actually called several other university presidents around the country and mentors of mine, and said, 'What's the other lever we can pull here?'" Tromp says. "Some of them called me back the next morning and said, 'I've been thinking about it all night. I can't think of another thing you can do here.'"

Yet there was one obvious lever that the university didn't pull: Asking the 36 faculty members teaching the course if the allegation was true. Boise State spokesman Mike Sharp says that, according to Boise State's provost, the first time those faculty members were told about the complaint was after classes had been suspended.

Tromp says Boise State was trying to be careful not to influence the independent investigation they wanted.

"If what you want is an independent investigation, you don't want to be seen to be putting your thumb on the scale in any way," Tromp says.

Tromp won't say whether the complaint came from a state legislator

One glaring question was left unanswered by the investigation: Who had the kind of influence to suspend more than 50 classes on just their account of a video they claimed to have seen?

The investigation doesn't identify the complainant beyond calling them a "concerned community leader," but portrays him as uncooperative, accusing the university of "indoctrinating students," but refusing to discuss what he'd seen in any detail or to connect the investigators with the "friend" who had the video.

Tromp says she spoke with the complainant before she decided to shut down the classes. She knows who he is.

When the Inlander asked if the complainant was a major donor, Tromp says, she isn't "aware of that." Asked if he was a state legislator, Tromp says "because the person hasn't given me permission to share any identity pieces. I don't think I can say more."

All she would say was "it was a person who was respected by the university." 

The suspension wasn't just about the one complaint

In January, Tromp had been grilled by the state Legislature about left-wing indoctrination at Boise State. After all, just two weeks before the complaint, legislators had slashed Boise State’s funding by over $400,000 and barred any money from the state, student fees or tuition from going "to support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus." Some legislators wanted to cut a lot deeper.

"We had people texting my leadership team during debates on the floor of the Legislature to say, 'They're talking about this class again.' So there were other concerns that had been brought forward," Tromp says. "It was not anything we could put our hands on and address... It's this theme we've seen nationally, that universities are attempting to indoctrinate students and that more conservative viewpoints are not welcome in some classes."

She doesn't say that the course suspension was caused by the Legislature, but says it stemmed from the same fraught environment that consumed the Legislature.

"We have people that are clashing in epic ways, on a national level. We have ideas that are clashing in epic ways on a national level. I think that's part of the reason that something like this could happen," Tromp says. "It felt like there was so much profound vulnerability at a time when we hadn't had a chance to begin to address what was happening in this new moment."

Tromp doesn't think this will happen again

Why would Idaho professors feel safe teaching about controversial issues — like critical race theory — if they just witnessed a single secondhand complaint get an entire course suspended?

The Inlander asked that question a few different ways and didn't necessarily get a definitive answer. But Tromp doubted another complaint would necessarily play out the same way.

"I hope to God I never face a situation like that again," Tromp says. "But it's hard to imagine that that particular chemistry could be at play."

Part of it, she says, is that the university won't be under the kind of pandemic restrictions that can make clear communication difficult. (Most of the University Foundations classes were already online when the suspension hit.)

And she thinks that faculty members have a better sense of the kinds of explosive cultural topics that professors may have to approach more delicately. It's not about avoiding controversial subjects, she says. It's about providing the background and context so students understand where they're coming from.

"We're in a different place right now," she says. "We can't presume certain things."

Tromp says that many faculty members didn't realize how some conservative Boise State students felt silenced in this environment

After the investigation came out clearing Boise State, Tromp says she got an angry email from a conservative student, calling her a "LIAR" in all caps. But she says, as she emailed back and forth with the student, she got a better sense of where he was coming form.

"He said, 'I was so excited to come to Boise State. And I am trying to figure out how to navigate this space now, and to know what my place is and when I can speak and when I cannot speak,'" Tromp says. "And I can promise you that many of our faculty did not understand that there was a portion of our students who felt like that deeply and profoundly, and who weren't speaking up."

And as a result, she says, the university is going to make sure to respond differently.

"None of our faculty wants a student feeling silenced in the classroom, none of our faculty wants a student feeling shut down, because that's not education," Tromp says.

She says Boise State is going to make what they thought was evident more explicit: The goal of the university isn't to indoctrinate students with controversial ideas, only to help them understand them.

"You need to be conversant in them, you need to be able to talk about them in a way that shows that you have grasped the material," she says. "But I'm not asking you to pledge allegiance to any of these ideas" 

Tromp says that students recording professors with malicious intent is a "real concern"

In a recent episode of the New York Times podcast, The Argument, columnist Michelle Goldberg revealed that she'd talked to Idaho professors off-the-record and heard "an enormous fear that their conservative students were going to record something that they said and send it to the state Legislature, or send it to College Fix, or some kind of right-wing feeder media [and] it’s going to end up in Tucker Carlson."

Tromp says most students approach the issues in good faith, but says that there's a real fear that some "may be recording us to send to the Legislature or to send to an antagonistic group, not to actually help the university understand a tension point or an issue."

"We saw a wave of this in the early to mid-'90s," she says. "At that time students were recording with handheld recorders. And I think it really does change the environment." 

She says it happened to her. It's happened to her recently with the leaked recording on the Idaho Freedom Foundation's website. And it happened to her back when she was a professor in the '90s, teaching subjects like ethnic studies and women's studies.

"I had a student who recorded me for an entire semester once and told me at the end of the semester, 'I've been waiting all year to catch you say something that I could publish,'" Tromp recalls. "And he said to me, 'I wasn't here to learn. I was here to learn about my enemy.' 
That was actually the language that he used."

But she says this moment is profoundly different: Today, social media can quickly take a campus controversy and turn it into a national firestorm. On the leaked recording, she said that after the Idaho Freedom Foundation posted her email address during one controversy, she received "hundreds and hundreds of some of the most venomous hateful emails you can possibly imagine. Threats to drag me out in the street and sexually assault me and kill me."

"It's far more dangerous to faculty and student well-being than it was even then," Tromp says.

Tromp thinks it's worth grappling with the criticisms of "critical race theory"

Last month, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill declaring it illegal for Idaho’s schools to compel students to affirm concepts like the idea that one race is inherently inferior to another or that individuals were inherently responsible for the historical actions of members of their racial group.

But the bill muddled matters by referring to these ideas as tenets of "critical race theory," an academic concept, sometimes discussed in college courses, that focuses on uprooting racist structures in every area of society. Right-wing critics of academia have openly tried to conflate the term with anything "crazy" on the left.

It has placed Idaho's teachers and professors in a confusing situation, leaving them unsure what exactly they are allowed to say and can't say under the new, potentially unconstitutional law. After all, compelling student speech is already illegal.

Tromp says that Boise State is trying to help its faculty figure out what the new law means.

"We're helping them understand what the university's role is in supporting their academic freedom of speech and free speech, just like we support our students',"  Tromp says.

But she also says that she doesn't think it means that professors can't lecture on critical race theory. Far from it. She says that it's worth engaging with arguments, that, say, critical race theory is divisive or "essentialist," that it focuses too much on a person's race to the exclusion of most everything else. 

"I actually think that's such a rich conversation," Tromp says. "That's a critique that people in Women's Studies and Black Studies and Africana Studies have been making for a long time; that we can't operate in an essentialist way." 

Tromp suggests that there are a lot of nuances that can be unpacked, like the idea that the issues that critical race theorists are concerned about aren't really about an individual's whiteness but larger "power structures."

"Let's actually bring some folks together who are working in this field, and bring these folks who have that critique together," she says. "Because I actually think there's some shared ground there for us to have this dialogue."

In the future, Boise State plans to launch what they're calling the "Institute For Advancing American Values," a program to engage in precisely the kind of contentious issues that has Boise State has been wrestling with.

"Part of the reason that we're starting this new institute, is because what we want to do is demonstrate that we're going to permit all of those voices on our campus.

In the meantime, the wheel keeps on spinning: Just this week, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin launched her "Task Force to Examine Indoctrination in Idaho Education,” packed with Boise State critics, intended to ferret out un-American ideas on Idaho's campuses.

Still, Tromp remains optimistic about the road ahead.

"As the tire is rolling, it can feel really painful when you're on the bottom of that," Tromp says. "But when you get up onto the top of it, and you've made those changes, it can be so exhilarating."

Queer Prom @ The Chameleon

Sat., June 22, 8 p.m.
  • or

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...