Proposed Revisions to Strengthen the Resiliency of the Center for American Exceptionalism

National Association of Scholars

State Representative Scott Odenbach of South Dakota has just introduced House Bill 1070, to create a Center for American Exceptionalism at Black Hills State University. This is a wonderful idea in general—but we’d suggest that the details need some revision. The bill as written would allow the proposed Center to get captured by the higher education establishment and do no good. South Dakota’s legislature ought to support Representative Odenbach’s wonderful idea, but in a form that will achieve its desired goals.

The history of higher education reform, unfortunately, demonstrates that no public university can be trusted to administer Centers dedicated to liberty. The University of Missouri so mismanaged a bequest to establish professorships devoted to economic liberty that Hillsdale College had to sue the University to allow some portion of the bequest to be used as the donor intended. College presidents, deans, and provosts, will co-opt any Center if they can.

House Bill 1070 does specify that “the Center for American Exceptionalism shall report to legislative committees with jurisdiction over education with respect to its operations in the previous fiscal year,” and that is a good way to ensure that the executive running the Center can inform South Dakota policymakers directly if the higher education establishment has attempted to take over the Center. This part of House Bill 1070 is excellent.

Yet House Bill 1070 also states that the center will be run by “A nonprofit board of directors appointed by the president of Black Hills State University.” No member of the higher education establishment should be given this power; it will guarantee that the Center will be ineffective. The Board of Directors, and the executive running the Center, should be appointed directly by South Dakota’s governor and state legislature.

House Bill 1070 also directs the new Center to disseminate in South Dakota public schools the curriculum of We the People and the Center for Civic Education. We the People is a “bipartisan” organization which includes a series of distortions to fit radical polemic:

We the People makes a number of quiet concessions that illustrate the weakness of the “nonpartisan approach.” It goes through the importance of the amendments chapter by chapter—but grants the Second Amendment only two paragraphs. It talks about reforms “to make it easier to vote” without talking about the need to prevent voter fraud, much less raising the notion that voter fraud is a thoroughly uncivic method of disenfranchisement.

We the People is a better choice than ICivics or Generation Citizen, but South Dakotans would do better to have their Center work with an organization such as Hillsdale College and its 1776 Curriculum—or, indeed, the Civics Alliance and American Birthright: The Civics Alliances’ Model K-12 Social Studies Standards.

The Civics Alliance has drafted a model School of Intellectual Freedom Act, informed by the experience of state legislatures in Arizona and Tennessee in creating such centers, for establishing Centers of Intellectual Freedom, such as House Bill 1070 seeks to create. We suggest that House Bill 1070 should be revised to include these elements from our model Act:

  • A Mission Statement that explicitly affirms the Center’s commitment to the study of intellectual freedom, the Western Heritage, and the American Heritage, and which states that these values take priority over others value the Center or the University also adopt.
  • Independent status as a School, with the right to determine its own hiring policies free of interference from other components of the university.
  • An explicit prohibition on experiential learning courses; courses that require students as a condition of passing any class to engage in activism; and courses that require students as a condition of passing any class to affirm or assent to discriminatory concepts.
  • The ability to determine course content for courses that will satisfy the university’s social studies General Education Requirements, and satisfy the subject matter requirements of prospective social studies teachers.
  • The legislature should ensure the Center’s independence and accountability by funding it directly, rather than through the South Dakota Board of Regents.
  • The legislature should ensure the Center’s independence and accountability by providing it housing on the university campus and enough funding to be self-sufficient; if the Center depends on the university for money and space, the higher education establishment can use that vulnerability to force it into conformity.

House Bill 1070 is a wonderful idea—but South Dakota policymakers should not waste taxpayer dollars on a Center that will be captured by the higher education establishment. We suggest these reforms to prevent the Center’s capture—and thereby to fulfill Representative Odenbach’s intent.

Photo of South Dkota State Capitol by Jimmy Emerson, DVM // Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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