The Other Cancel Culture: A University Administration Caves to a Conservative CrusadeBreaking News
tags: Idaho, culture war, critical race theory
This article was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In August 2020, Boise State University chose a doctoral student in public policy, Melanie Fillmore, to deliver what is called a “land acknowledgment” speech at a convocation for incoming freshmen. Fillmore, who is part Indigenous, would recognize the tribes that lived in the Boise Valley before they were banished to reservations to make way for white settlers.
Fillmore considered it an honor. She was devoted to Boise State, where she had earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taught undergraduate courses and served on job search committees. She also admired Marlene Tromp, a feminist literary scholar who came from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2019 to become Boise State’s first female president. Tromp had been hired with a mandate to promote diversity, and including an Indigenous speaker in the ceremony marking the start of students’ higher education would advance that agenda.
The convocation was to be virtual, because of the pandemic. Fillmore put on beaded Native American jewelry and recorded an eight-minute video on her phone. She began by naming the “rightful owners of this land,” the Boise Valley Indigenous tribes, and then described her own “complicated” background. Her father was Hunkpapa Lakota, her mother white. “I can trace eight generations of my Lakota ancestors being removed from the land of their lifeblood to the reservation, just as I can trace seven generations of Norwegian and English ancestors taking that land,” she said.
Fillmore urged viewers to “find a way to share your story here at Boise State” and to learn the history of Indigenous people. “When we acknowledge the Boise Valley ancestors and their land, we make room for that story of removal that was genocidal in purpose,” she said. “When we tell those stories honestly and fully, we heal, and our ancestors heal with us.”
She submitted her speech to the university, but the students never heard it. Boise State higher-ups thought that it was too long and too provocative to roll out in a politically precarious climate, one former official said. They consulted another administrator about whether to drop the speech. “I communicated that pulling it was a bad idea and incredibly wrong,” said this person, who has also left the university. “I don’t believe in de-platforming Indigenous voices.”
The advice was disregarded. Two days before the convocation, the vice president for student affairs told Fillmore that her appearance was canceled, explaining that her safety might be at risk or that she might be trolled or doxxed online.
Fillmore was devastated. She had encouraged the students to tell their stories, and now hers was being erased. She wondered if administrators were worried about the timing. The Idaho Legislature — which normally meets from January to March, when it decides how much money to give to public education, including Boise State — would hold a special session three days after the convocation to consider COVID-19 measures. Conservative legislators, who ever since Tromp’s arrival had been attacking Boise State’s diversity initiatives, might hear about Fillmore’s talk and seize on it to bash the university.
“I didn’t say anything that I haven’t already been sharing with my research and work,” she wrote to a faculty mentor, political scientist Stephen Utych, in an email the next day.
“I was incredibly frustrated for Melanie, but also that the university caved on something so relatively benign, because there’s so much pressure coming externally,” Utych said in an interview. He added that concerns about the Legislature’s impact on Boise State were one reason he quit his tenured professorship this year to work in market research.
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