The Rising Threat of Bill SB 2247 

Kira Symington, Reporter

Senator Bob Paulson recently proposed a bill, SB 2247, that holds tremendous implications for institutions of higher education in North Dakota, including UND. 

In short, this proposed bill would restrict the teaching of “divisive concepts” in university classrooms, orientations, and/or workshops, in addition to prohibiting any mandatory training that includes these concepts in public universities. Finally, if an institution were to employ an individual whose duties include diversity such as a Diversity Coordinator, Vice President of Diversity, etc., their duties would also have to include “efforts to strengthen and increase intellectual diversity among students and faculty.” 

Problems arise when we question what exactly these “divisive concepts” are. SB 2247 characterizes these concepts in 16 very broad ways, making the interpretation and potential enforcement of them a worrisome affair. The issues of the bill and its interpretation are compounded by the idea of “intellectual diversity”, something that has the potential to undermine the very structure of learning and critical thinking in our universities.  

Unfortunately, educational gag order bills like this are on the rise all across our nation. The most notable case being Ron DeSantis’s restrictions on black studies courses, something that Jan-Werner Müller of The Guardian sees as following on the heels of the “don’t say gay” legislation passed last year. John Riley of Metro Weekly reports that even our neighboring state, Minnesota, has had 21 separate gag order bills proposed to limit what can be discussed or mentioned — even in passing — in classrooms. And now, this ideological warfare has arrived at our doorsteps.  

I interviewed Dr. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, a philosophy professor here at UND, to learn more about SB 2247 and its implications for our higher education programs.  

[Disclaimer from the interviewee: “The views expressed here are my own as a private citizen and do not represent the views or stance of UND or any unit therein.” —Rebecca Rozelle-Stone] 

The quotations below have been edited or summarized for concision and readability. 


In what ways could you foresee the bill and/or its interpretation becoming an issue for ND’s higher education programs? 

As many have already pointed out, SB 2477 threatens to stifle one of the most important tenets of higher education: academic freedom, or the freedom to teach and discuss all relevant matters. It would also limit foundational educational aims and practices as well as undermine efforts towards greater diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility.  

The “divisive concepts” it targets would include facts about, for instance, privilege and oppression in our society, which have affected and still affect various marginalized groups. Certain ideas like: the notion that an individual could be relatively privileged due to their race or sex; or that an individual, by virtue of the advantaged place that their race or sex confers in our society may hold subconscious racist or sexist beliefs; or that the United States was founded, in large part, upon colonialist practices and ideas that are racist or sexist would all fall under the definition of a “divisive concept”.  

I think this goes against a lot of evidence-backed understandings we have now. But also, in a broader sense, the bill is problematic because it would regulate both free speech and crucial dialogue between adults at a university campus.  

I also want to go back to that term “diversity of thought” or “intellectual diversity.” The idea sounds nice, right? Intellectual diversity is said to aim to prohibit the indoctrination of students. 

But these are the terms that are being widely used by proponents of educational gag orders. What “intellectual diversity” really ends up doing is excluding important evidence-based findings in teaching and discussion about privilege, oppression, and the ways in which specific histories of people have placed them in more or less advantageous societal positions. 

So, it actually closes down possibilities for learning these kinds of theories in order to champion one dominant and unsubstantiated narrative, for instance, the idea that America is a pure meritocracy where everyone has the same starting position, no social group has inherent privilege, and so on and so forth. Which, in my view, is ironically a move towards the indoctrination of students.  


What philosophical issues arise from the possible omission/prohibition of various pieces of intellectual history and contemporary theory, such as on class, race, or sex-based struggles? 

One issue would be something that comes from the philosophy of education itself, namely the idea that nothing should be immune from consideration and that we should not be prohibited from seriously examining certain theories and ideas. 

So, for example, I think that an informal prerequisite to doing philosophy is an attitude of openness to new ideas and willingness to think critically and carefully about all things, with a desire to attain truth. For the person who is oriented philosophically, nothing is too sacred to be immune from critical reflection and questioning. We should cultivate a level of comfort with being intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically uncomfortable. 

And of course, this goes all the way back to Socrates, right? He was famous for questioning everything and upsetting many powerful community members of ancient Athens. They declared that he was trying to indoctrinate and corrupt the youth and eventually sentenced him to death for that. Ever since then, anyone who considers themself a philosopher, or indeed anyone who takes themselves seriously as an academic, holds fiercely to the idea of the questioning of everything, and certainly the speaking of truth to power is a big part of that. 

So that is one philosophical issue. I think the more direct philosophical issue that would be impacted by the bill is the fact that, at the basis of our efforts to understand and learn from minoritized or marginalized groups, we must contend with facts of oppression and privilege and how those phenomena have affected our individual and group dynamics, opportunities, sufferings and struggles. 

I think the bill is trying to keep many of us oblivious to some of those realizations. If we start to become aware of them, some of us might have to become accountable for any unearned power or advantage we have and start to see that meritocracy in the US is a myth. We might have to contend with what scholar Peggy McIntosh tells us, that is, many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own, simply based on their sex, skin color, family, class, etc.  

If the bill passed, it would have a chilling effect on the study of texts of marginalized groups of people. I think Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” for instance, would become problematic under this bill. In that letter, King explicitly describes the history of racism against black and brown people and ways in which many whites have been complicit and benefited from that racism. Additionally, he details the need for oppressed peoples to, as he puts it, demand freedom from the oppressor because otherwise it won’t be freely given in a quest for justice. And I think part of demanding that freedom is acknowledging the reality of things like oppression and privilege that have unfairly impacted certain groups and individuals more than others. 


Do you see this as a sort of nationalistic movement? 

I do think there is potential for that. I certainly think this bill is part of a growing authoritarian movement. This is based on the widespread reading, seminars, and research I have done in my 20-plus years studying ethical, social, and political philosophy from an intersectional feminist background. 

The idea that no group is inherently more privileged in our society gives power to the lie. The lie that everyone is being treated equally in our society. The lie that no group or individuals therein have any special obstacles that must be continually overcome or struggled with as a result of their skin color. And we know from listening to the testimonies of people and from reading historical documents that that is simply not the case.  

You could say nationalism, but I think this is a more authoritarian effort to say, “This feel-good narrative must be accepted.” Because of gains and advances that have been made by traditionally marginalized, oppressed, and minority groups, we are starting to see that those who have traditionally held power are sensing that the narrative that supports their power is being challenged and eroded. So, there is this vehement backlash, primarily from white, straight, cisgender, middle or upper-class, Christian men, against anything that would suggest otherwise than America is just a pure and free meritocracy, that there is no inherent inequality, and there is no inherent privilege that one group has over another. 

That is a very convenient narrative that has existed for a long time to support the power of that dominant group. But now, we are just seeing explicit efforts to make that, in the letter of the Law, the narrative, and to prohibit any other stories or theories, no matter how much factual and statistical evidence supports them, from taking hold.  


Some people have provided written testimonies against the bill, arguing that many of its points are already covered by Federal law. If this is true, how necessary is the bill and does it provide anything new?  

Yeah, I would say many of the points in the bill are already covered by federal law, and so in that sense, many of those points are redundant. For instance, discrimination against an individual because of that person’s race or sex is clearly illegal. 

But I do think the bill goes much farther, which is why it is so controversial, or dare I say “divisive”. It suggests that “discrimination” and “problematic or adverse treatment” would include causing an individual to feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish due to, for example, a person’s race or sex being connected to something like a history of privilege. I want to be clear that I think the bill has been primarily engineered to protect white men in particular from feeling discomfort, guilt or anguish due to actual histories and contemporary circumstances of the adverse treatment of others. 

But there is nothing wrong with feeling discomfort or anguish. I do not believe guilt is a productive feeling, but we all become uncomfortable when we learn things that challenge our worldviews. That is a central part of education. 

So, I am not sure why legislators are looking to shut down those necessary processes and feelings that are part of learning. I would argue if we never felt any discomfort or anguish at learning about the realities of our civilization, our histories, or new concepts and ideas, then we are not really learning. There is often a transitional period through which we have to experience difficulty and stretch our minds to new things that challenge us. 


Any other concerns about bill SB 2247? 

To better explain my concerns with SB 2247, I think it helps to look at the broader context of legislative attacks on free inquiry and discourse in educational settings. These are often called “educational gag orders”, for instance, by PEN America, which has been taking a close look at all these different bills across the country. They note that in 2022, 36 different states introduced 137 educational gag order bills. These bills typically aim to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 and higher education. 

And going back to the idea of “intellectual diversity”, because again, this is a term that is not being used just by North Dakota legislators but across the country in various educational gag order bills, there is a problem that hides beneath that rhetoric. What it implies is that no issue apparently could be resolved in time and after much research with a decisive conclusion… We are led to think that multiple views and perspectives on issues must continually and perpetually be entertained for the sake of “intellectual diversity”. 

Of course, part of our educational mission is the fostering of healthy debates and inviting people to think about different angles to subjects. We try to teach students how to devise good arguments, not just having opinions, but building good arguments, based on sufficient evidence, on issues. 

In all this, we are striving for truth. And sometimes that truth is more elusive. But what terms like “intellectual diversity” suggest is that there must be this endless entertainment of all views and perspectives, as if you never could arrive at truth on something. 

But, for instance, we do not entertain theories of a flat Earth. We have gotten beyond that. And in other cases, we must accept that sometimes the truths that we arrive at are uncomfortable for those who have traditionally held power in our communities, states, and country. 

I also just want to mention something that the AAUP said about academic freedom that relates to this: academic knowledge, which is a core component of academic freedom, is premised on an inequality of status between differing ideas. Faculty members routinely reject certain ideas as having less merit than others and train their students to do the same, using tried and true methods like employing formal logic and examination of evidence. Without this process of designating certain views as having less merit than others, knowledge would not progress. And I think that is something that is forgotten in all this rhetoric of “intellectual diversity.” 


 Kira Symington is a Dakota Student General Reporter. She can be reached at [email protected].