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Lost donors, calls for action: An in-depth look inside Boise State’s Scott Yenor firestorm

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Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-25 15:17:21-04

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on August 25, 2022

When professor Scott Yenor went viral in November — with a speech decrying career-oriented women as “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome,” and colleges and universities as “the citadels of our gynocracy” — Boise State University said little.

Now, the university is virtually silent.

  • Boise State won’t comment on whether it investigated Yenor’s grading practices, to make sure the political science professor treated female students fairly. But in an essay published in June, Yenor boasted of beating a series of “spurious” civil rights charges leveled by the university.
  • Boise State won’t say whether it considered working out “a termination strategy” with Yenor. This suggestion came from one of the biggest names in Idaho public policy circles: Bruce Newcomb, the former Idaho House speaker, who later worked as the university’s Statehouse lobbyist.
  • Boise State will say only that Yenor remains on the university payroll, but on sabbatical this year.

Boise State’s paper trail fills in some gaps.

Idaho Education News filed a public records request with Boise State, seeking all emails to and from President Marlene Tromp regarding Yenor, dating back to his Oct. 31 National Conservatism Conference speech on career-oriented women. Boise State didn’t release all of the emails, citing exemptions involving student privacy, attorney-client communications, personnel records and personal information. Boise State released 1,160 pages of emails. (Click here to read more about the records request, and Boise State’s initial push to charge Idaho EdNews for the documents.)

To complete these stories, Idaho EdNews reviewed 1,160 pages of emails, provided by Boise State University in late July. After reviewing the emails, EdNews submitted more than two dozen written questions to Boise State.  Most went unanswered. President Marlene Tromp declined an interview request, and professor Scott Yenor did not respond to interview requests. However, Idaho EdNews did interview several people who contacted Boise State last fall — to get their perspective on the controversy, months after the fact.

The emails that were released weave a story of a university in the midst of a public relations siege. Newcomb and others pushed the university to fire Yenor, discipline him, or investigate his classroom conduct. Parents said they would no longer consider sending their college-bound sons and daughters to Boise State. Alums said they were cutting off donations. Others sharply criticized Tromp, Boise State’s first female president, for her handling of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the university sought a nuanced balance. In one breath, administrators tried to soothe critics, saying Yenor’s words do not reflect the university’s views. In the next breath, administrators said they had to protect Yenor’s First Amendment rights — and had little room to discipline a tenured professor.

‘I hope this finds you well. And quarrelsome.’

Delivered more than 2,000 miles from Boise, at a conference on conservatism in Orlando, Fla., Yenor’s Oct. 31 speech went unnoticed for weeks. By Thanksgiving week, video of the speech had gone viral over social media.

Emails started pouring into Tromp’s inbox.

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp declined to be interviewed about political science professor Scott Yenor. In her state of the university address last week, Tromp did not address Yenor by name — but she appeared to address his attempts to downplay the existence of male-dominated academic fields. “We invite our students into every major: every major, no matter who they are.” Idaho EdNews file photo.

On Nov. 25, Thanksgiving morning, Linda Winneberger emailed Tromp a link to the video, with a wry reference to a Yenor soundbite. “I hope this finds you well. And quarrelsome.”

Kaitlin Huso, a Boise State alumnus with a degree in IT management, wrote Tromp on Nov. 28.

“I am truly embarrassed today as a former BSU student,” Huso wrote. “I am horrified, especially as a woman working in a very male-dominated industry. … I’m very disappointed with the tolerance Boise State has for crediting political science professors that have this underlying anti-women mindset.”

As Tromp responded to some of the emails over the long holiday weekend, a form response took shape.

“We understand that the open exchange of ideas, which is fundamental to education, can introduce uncomfortable and even offensive ideas,” Tromp said in several emails to critics. “However, Boise State cannot infringe upon the First Amendment rights of any members of our community, regardless of whether we, as individual leaders, agree or disagree with the message. … No single faculty member defines what Boise State — or any public university — endorses or stands for.”

This passage, virtually verbatim, became a linchpin of the university’s media statement, issued as the Yenor story picked up momentum the week after Thanksgiving.

“You are an educated woman. Shouldn’t you be home, wearing an apron and cooking for some man?”

The story quickly went national — even global.

“I urge rapid and strict response from your university to maintain some dignity on the international stage, or you are in danger of setting your school up for worldwide mockery,” said Michael Debije of the Eindhoven Instutitute of Technology in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in a Dec. 1 email to Tromp.

Some emails took a personal tone.

Suzet Malek said Yenor’s remarks should hit home for Tromp. “After all, you are an educated woman,” she wrote. “Shouldn’t you be home, wearing an apron and cooking for some man?”

“You of all people, a woman in a leadership position at that, should have stood up for our young women of tomorrow,” wrote Kelley McCusker, who described herself as the parent of a prospective student. “You are a coward.”

Tromp did not respond to Idaho EdNews’ interview requests. But in an email to Nicole Sellars, a Boise State alumnus, she described personal attacks that went beyond the emails provided to Idaho EdNews.

“I have received stunningly misogynistic emails — from people who have assumed I must be a man, ‘Marlon,’ rather than a women’s studies prof, to people who have called me ‘a useless waste of a vagina,’” Tromp wrote. “Of course, there is much work to be done both inside and outside the institution.”

‘If you won’t protect students, I will protect mine’

A year ago, Heather Madure’s daughter was considering attending Boise State. The Yenor controversy changed her mind. On Dec. 2, Madure emailed Tromp.

“Good luck, I’m sure this is not easy to deal with,” wrote Madure, of Long Beach, Calif. “I hope moving forward you are able to do more to keep this vile person out of higher education. … If you won’t protect students, I will protect mine.”

Madure’s email represents a recurring theme, albeit an anecdotal one. In the wake of the Yenor story, at least 10 parents from Idaho and beyond said they were rethinking sending their kids to Boise State, or said their kids were having second thoughts about enrolling.

“I do not want any of my hard-earned money to go to pay for this person’s salary. Sadly, I want my son to hurry up and graduate so he is not associated with BSU any longer.”

One emailer, identified only as “Amy,” described herself as the conflicted parent of a Boise State senior. (Boise State redacted the names and email addresses of parents, citing federal student privacy law.)

“I do not want any of my hard-earned money to go to pay for this person’s salary,” she wrote. “Sadly, I want my son to hurry up and graduate so he is not associated with BSU any longer.”

Meanwhile, several alums said they were withholding donations.

Huso was among them.

Huso, a Seattle native, now works at Micron Technology. After willingly paying out-of-state tuition to attend Boise State — and enjoying her experience on the campus — she said she is disappointed to see her alma mater “enable” Yenor.

“This very much crossed the line of academic freedom to becoming misogynistic and sexist,” Huso said in a recent interview.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly how the Yenor controversy affected student applications, which showed signs of spiking in 2022. It’s also hard to pinpoint the impact on charitable giving, which climbed to a record $56.5 million in 2021-22. Boise State declined to comment on these impacts. This was one of more than two dozen written questions submitted by Idaho EdNews — questions Boise State refused to answer.

The email trail shows the university won over at least one concerned donor.

On Dec. 5, Rich Collins wrote Tromp and Athletic Director Jeremiah Dickey, asking to be removed from all fundraising pitches. “(Yenor’s) words dug very deep at myself, my wife, and my youngest daughter,” Collins wrote. “All three of us are Boise State alumni.”

Later that Sunday afternoon, Tromp emailed Collins to forward one of Boise State’s public statements on the matter — one that read, in part, “Women belong on our campus, and we affirm the broad range of ways they work and live in the world.”

By day’s end, Collins appeared to have a change of heart.

“Thank you so much! I did miss these comments and agree with them wholeheartedly. Thank you again for your amazing leadership. We are very fortunate to have you leading the university!”

‘The damage he has done to the university is immeasurable’

Suzi Lane’s one-sentence Dec. 8 email contained nearly as many exclamation points as words. “You need to fire that dope!!!!!”

And as Boise State continued to walk a fine legal and public relations line — with its public statements affirming Yenor’s First Amendment rights and the importance of women on campus — Lane email’s represented a drumbeat of calls for action.

“It might be wise to put (Yenor) on leave publicly and work out some kind of termination strategy.”

Newcomb, the former House speaker and Boise State lobbyist, was measured but direct.

“It might be wise to put (Yenor) on leave publicly and work out some kind of termination strategy,” Newcomb wrote on Dec. 2. “The damage he has done to the university is immeasurable. If I can help in any way let me know even if it’s just a shoulder to cry on.”

Tromp’s reply was brief and noncommittal. “Thank you so much, Bruce!”

Anything the university could have done to distance itself from Yenor would have been “good optics,” Newcomb told Idaho EdNews in a recent interview. But he acknowledged the challenges of coming up with a termination strategy involving a tenured professor.

“That was just a suggestion on my part,” Newcomb said.

Boise State declined to elaborate on the exchange with Newcomb — and whether it considered terminating Yenor.

While Newcomb acted alone, Cara Ivens of Phoenixville, Pa., amassed an online coalition. She submitted a petition through Change.org, bearing nearly 8,000 signatures. The signees, from Idaho and across the nation, urged Boise State to investigate Yenor’s lectures, speeches and social media posts through the prism of Title IX, the 1972 federal education law banning discrimination on the basis of sex.

On Dec. 2, Tromp emailed Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Buckwalter for his “thoughts” on the petition. In response, Buckwalter recommended ignoring it.

Boise State would not comment on Buckwalter’s recommendation.

Boise State Chief of Staff Alicia Estey cannot comment specifically on Yenor. But she said the university has an obligation to investigate any discrimination complaints under its Policy 1060, an anti-discrimination policy; and Policy 1065, a sexual harassment and sexual misconduct policy. The two policies address Title IX, Title VII of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act and other nondiscrimination laws, she said.

‘No one accused is innocent’

However, Yenor has a lot to say on the matter.

Boise State University professor Scott Yenor did not respond to interview requests from Idaho EdNews. But in an essay published in June, he accused Boise State of soliciting complaints from students, in an unsuccessful attempt to build a civil rights case against him. “Since universities are ostensibly committed to free speech, it is difficult to punish people directly for their unpopular views, but civil rights processes offer another effective method for silencing dissent. Harassment and discrimination policies set by universities often serve this purpose.” Idaho EdNews file photo.

Yenor did not respond to repeated interview requests from Idaho EdNews. But Yenor told his side of the story in a June 6 essay, titled “Inside the Title IX Tribunal.”

“’Insufficient evidence?’ That’s a lame way to describe vindication. Welcome to the civil rights regime on the modern campus.”

In the essay, Yenor says Boise State charged him with six civil rights violations, a week after the video of his speech went viral. This led to a Title IX investigation.

Yenor accused Boise State of soliciting complaints from students — only to drum up charges that proved to be “completely ridiculous and quite easily refuted.” He said he was prepared to defend himself — using years of class notes and grades, recordings of lectures and emails to students — because he said he had faced another Title IX investigation four years earlier. And in the end, he wrote, Boise State’s investigator found “insufficient evidence” to back up the latest allegations.

“’Insufficient evidence?’ That’s a lame way to describe vindication,” Yenor wrote. “Welcome to the civil rights regime on the modern campus. No one accused is innocent. I am, according to my experienced attorney, one of the few to survive a Title IX hearing with no adverse action.”

Yenor’s essay appeared in Law & Liberty, published by the Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund, a think tank focused on the “intellectual heritage of individual liberty from ancient times through our own.” Yenor is a frequent contributor.

Boise State declined to comment on Yenor’s essay, or his account of Boise State’s investigation.

Late last week, Boise State spokesman Mike Sharp said Yenor, a Boise State professor since 2000, remains a university employee. He is on sabbatical this year.

But mostly, this statement only confirms what is already public. Yenor’s biography and contact information appears on Boise State’s political science department website. And Transparent Idaho — the state’s online public checkbook — lists Yenor as a state employee, making $99,445 per year.

Meanwhile, Yenor has been visible, and vocal, in Idaho conservative circles.

In December 2020, he co-authored a white paper criticizing social justice spending at Boise State University, along with Anna Miller, an education analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that has pushed for cuts in higher education spending. In the summer of 2021, Yenor sat on an education task force — hand-picked by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, and assigned the task of rooting out evidence of indoctrination in K-12 and higher education.

In August, Yenor penned an essay criticizing Boise city officials for awarding $3 million of federal child care grants to the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, saying the early education advocacy group promotes critical race theory and the sexualization of children. Yenor wrote the piece for the Claremont Center, a Washington, D.C. group that says its mission is “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life;” Yenor is a fellow for Claremont’s Center for the American Way of Life.

‘Dr. Yenor’s scholarship is protected’

The vast majority of emails blasted Yenor’s comments — and Boise State’s muted response. The embattled professor and beleaguered administration received just a smattering of support.

“It seems that many universities are afraid to stand up to the small, vocal mob, and cave to political pressure during tough times. I feel this only leads to a never-ending cycle of ‘cancel culture’ where the mob is never satisfied.”

One email came from a writer identified only as “Bryan,” the father of a student. “Thank you again for being the voice of reason during these crazy times. It seems that many universities are afraid to stand up to the small, vocal mob, and cave to political pressure during tough times. I feel this only leads to a never-ending cycle of ‘cancel culture’ where the mob is never satisfied.”

One voice of support came from an unlikely, distant source.

Hall Haselton can’t remember exactly how he came to hear about the Yenor controversy. A retired financial adviser living in Brentwood, Tenn., Haselton has no ties to Boise State. He’s not even really sure he agrees with Yenor’s views on career-oriented women, but supports Yenor’s right to freedom of expression. Haselton says he was most concerned with the “woke world” gripping higher education.

“I’m literally flabbergasted by the number of people in the academic community who have fallen prey to this philosophy,” he said in a recent interview. “It really blows my mind.”

So on impulse, Haselton sent off an email to Tromp on Dec. 16. He can’t recall firing off an email to another university president, and he didn’t expect to hear back.

Tromp responded the next day. While her reply was consistent with Boise State’s message on freedom of speech, it was, perhaps, her strongest statement on Yenor’s job security.

“While we will not tolerate discrimination, Dr. Yenor’s scholarship is protected by our policies and practices,” Tromp wrote.

‘How this was handled is a reflection on BSU’

On occasions, such as Tromp’s email to Haselton, Boise State administrators strayed slightly off script. Several times, their comments depict an internal angst over the Yenor controversy.

  • In her Dec. 8 email to alumnus Sellars — the same email where Tromp described personal attacks against her — the president made perhaps her strongest comment against Yenor, and on behalf of her other employees. “Given your own experience here with our faculty and our staff, I’m sure you can imagine that the vast majority of people on our campus have expressed full-throated disagreement with the views expressed by Dr. Yenor.”
  • In a Jan. 11 email, dean of students Chris Wuthrich sought to ease a prospective transfer student’s concerns. “Dr. Yenor’s classes are not requirements to get a political science degree at Boise State, so students who are uncomfortable with the views that he has expressed will not be forced to take any courses from him.”
  • In a Dec. 4 email, Wuthrich tried to appease “Amy,” the mother of a Boise State senior, who voiced her concerns about Yenor to Tromp. “As a longtime Boise State employee, I know the institution does good work and we recognize there are opportunities to grow. I hope that in time by our actions and example we may regain your trust.”

But by and large, Boise State stayed close to a pair of prepared statements on the matter, neither addressing Yenor’s status. The first focused on academic freedom, the second focused on the importance of women on campus.

“There are idiots all over, as we all know. But universities don’t throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, it’s a free country and he can say what he wants.’”

If the comments were an attempt at damage control, the results were mixed. A Nov. 30 email from Stephanie Inman reflected this backlash.

“BSU’s handling of this has made me more mad than Yenor’s comments. There are idiots all over, as we all know. But universities don’t throw up their hands and say, ‘well, it’s a free country and he can say what he wants.’ How this was handled is a reflection on BSU.”

It’s unclear whether Boise State hired any outside public relations help — at taxpayer expense — to weather the Yenor firestorm. Idaho EdNews asked the university; the university declined to answer.

‘I’m not sure what your avenues are’

Months removed from the Yenor controversy, three alumni interviewed by Idaho EdNews said they were conflicted about their alma mater.

“He cannot be fair and impartial in the classroom with views like his. I don’t see how it’s possible that he’s giving everyone a fair chance.”

George Hemmings sought out Yenor’s classes when he attended Boise State. “I enjoyed his classes,” Hemmings, a 2004 graduate, said in a recent interview. “He’s a good teacher. He makes the material engaging.”

But Hemmings decided last fall to withhold donations to Boise State. He says he supports free speech, but as the father of three daughters, including one daughter who also graduated from Boise State, Yenor’s remarks on career-oriented women went too far. “You have to vote with your dollars in this day and age,” said Hemmings, who now lives in Salem, Ore.

A 2010 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in English, Sellars now teaches sport management at Troy University in Alabama. She says she had a great time as an undergrad and has thought about returning to Boise State to teach at some point in the future. But she also thinks Boise State didn’t go far enough to discipline Yenor.

“He cannot be fair and impartial in the classroom with views like his,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t see how it’s possible that he’s giving everyone a fair chance.”

The Yenor controversy — and the ongoing tension between the university and conservatives in the Legislature — could affect Sellars’ future career decisions. “I think my loyalty will be tested throughout this situation.”

Unlike Hemmings, Huso consciously steered clear of Yenor’s classroom, as she augmented her IT management degree with as many political science courses as she could. “As a female, I had no interest in paying to take (his) class.”

Huso, a former Associated Students of Boise State University representative, doesn’t have the same relationship she used to have with her alma mater. The 2020 graduate still uses her old Boise State email address and attends the occasional football game, but she wishes the university could have done more in response to the controversy. At least, she said, the university could do more to support women studying male-dominated fields, such as IT.

And while she wishes Boise State would get rid of Yenor, she recognizes the obstacles facing Tromp: Yenor’s tenure, and the politics of Idaho. “I think her hands are pretty tied behind her back.”

Few understand these realities as well as Newcomb. And like the alums, he too is conflicted.

In an interview, Newcomb said he considers Yenor’s comments “unforgivable.” “In this day and age, I thought that was really offensive.”

But Newcomb is also diplomatic. As a former top aide to Bob Kustra, Tromp’s predecessor at Boise State, Newcomb doesn’t want to criticize Tromp. From his time in Kustra’s office, he quickly learned that tenured professors are “pretty insulated.”

“I’m not sure what your avenues are,” he said.

Months later, it remains unclear what avenues Boise State pursued, if any, in response to Yenor.

The paper trail — or at least what Boise State released — provides some clues. But the university won’t provide answers.