A diversity initiative that would help fan the flame of conservative opinions and viewpoints on Missouri college campuses, which some students and educators feel have been smothered by liberal bias in higher education, was approved Tuesday by the House Higher Education Committee.
The Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, named for the Missouri State University graduate that inspired the bill, was passed five to three.
At the hearing, the committee heard testimony from students and teachers who spoke on the positives and negatives of the bill.
Committee chairman Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said the bill would be sent to the House Rules Committee for approval before the House votes on it.
"I would assume that they will pass it," Kingery said.
Kingery said the House could vote on the bill as early as next week.
If passed in the House, Missouri institutions would be required to promote a wider range of academic viewpoints.
Kingery said he supports the bill because students should be able to freely express any differences in opinion to professors in a classroom setting without any adverse effects on their grades.
"There should be no repercussions for expressing your opinion or your concerns," Kingery said.
Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who is the bill's sponsor, said the hearing went "very well" and is optimistic about the bill's success in the House.
"I think it will pass," Cunningham said, "It's a simple bill and very neutral."
The bill's three dissenting votes came from the only Democrats serving on the committee.
Retired MU Professor Roland Meinert, who testified at the hearing in support of the bill, said if he were a student, he wouldn't have the courage to challenge a professor whose political or moral beliefs were at odds with his own.
"I happen to believe it is a problem that affects a large number of students," Meinert said.
Meinert said if he were still employed by MU, he would fear "backlash" from fellow faculty over his support of the bill.
Rep. Rebecca Payne McClanahan, D-Kirksville, who voted against the bill, said it is damaging to higher education in the state.
"I really don't think the bill would be of any benefit," McClanahan said, "I see it as a nuisance to university administrators."
The bill would require Missouri colleges to turn in an annual report to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education about what measures the institution has taken to promote intellectual diversity.
The bill lists suggestions for colleges to improve intellectual diversity on their campuses, which include promoting balance in colleges' choices in panels and speakers, developing hiring practices that would prevent viewpoint discrimination against applicants and hiring an institutional ombudsman to hear concerns and complaints involving intellectual diversity.
Megan Fitzgerald, program director for the Chicago-based Center for Campus Free Speech, said bills in legislation in Georgia, Montana and Virginia are almost identical to Missouri's Intellectual Diversity Act.
The Center for Campus Free Speech is a division of the Free Exchange on Campus.
Fitzgerald, whose organization has taken a position against the bills, said they "restrict the free exchange of ideas" because they allow state legislators to look into what can and can't be taught in college classrooms.
"The most damaging thing about them is the year-in, year-out reporting," Fitzgerald said.
Brooker, the name of and the inspiration for the bill, made headlines last year when she filed suit against MSU, claiming that a professor lowered her grade as a result of her refusal to sign a letter to Missouri legislators supporting same-sex adoption. The university settled the suit.
Brooker testified at the hearing but could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
"She had a pretty dramatic testimony," Cunningham said.