Backlash against DEI spreads to more states

Erika Bolstad | (TNS)

SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after taking office in 2023, Republican state Rep. Katy Hall heard from constituents complaining about how their adult children were required to write diversity, equity and inclusion statements while applying for medical and dental schools and other graduate programs in Utah.

“It doesn’t seem right,” Hall said. “It doesn’t seem like it belongs in an application.”

It took two legislative sessions, but Hall successfully sponsored a new law that not only prohibits the use of such DEI statements but also bars state institutions from relying on specific individual characteristics in employment and education decisions. Additionally, it eliminates central offices dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion.

In Utah and beyond, lawmakers are enjoying growing success in their pushback against DEI programs at public universities, many of which have hired administrators and established departments dedicated to creating more diverse faculties and student bodies. Some schools’ requirement that job and student applicants explain in writing how they’d bring DEI initiatives to their work or schooling has aroused especially strong opposition. Some states have dismantled DEI departments and programs, as well as ended race- and gender-based programs and scholarships.

Many in Utah describe their approach as more measured than that of other states. The law, which goes into effect July 1, includes a carve-out that allows DEI to be discussed in classroom instruction as well as in research and for accreditation purposes.

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, who signed Hall’s legislation into law in January, said it “offers a balanced solution” even as it prohibits the type of training sessions he required of his staff when he first took office in 2021.

The intent of the legislation, Hall said, is to shift higher education away from a focus on identity.

“This is what we felt was a more nuanced way to say: ‘We want diversity, we want equality of opportunity, we want inclusion, but we want diversity of opinion and a diversity of thought and diversity of religion and diversity of everything.’ Not just external, personal identity characteristics,” Hall said.

“We used to be able to have discussions about politics without it coming to a judgment of someone’s moral character,” she added. “My hope is that there will be a little more political neutrality where you can have discussions and feel safe to have those discussions without it being so divisive.”

But the bill passed along party lines, pointed out state Rep. Angela Romero, a Democrat who serves as the House minority leader in Utah. She described what’s happening in her state as part of a broader culture war aimed at painting higher education as elite and out of touch.

“This is a national agenda,” Romero said in an interview. “It’s a machine and it’s been going for a while and it’s picking up momentum.”

Utah’s rollback is among dozens of simultaneous efforts to scale back DEI programs — to varying degrees — in state capitals and on higher education oversight boards in other Republican-led states. In at least 22 states, the legislature has enacted legislation, or public universities have set policies prohibiting or modifying DEI measures at state university systems, according to a running tally in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Among the earliest passed was 2023 legislation in North Dakota that prohibits asking students and prospective university employees about their commitment to DEI. Florida followed last year with a law that does away with diversity statements and DEI offices. Alabama in 2024 enacted a law restricting public employees from being forced to agree with so-called divisive concepts, including the idea that “by virtue of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, the individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

In South Dakota, the Board of Regents recently enacted a policy that bars employees at its six public universities from putting their preferred gender pronouns or tribal affiliations in email signatures, according to Inside Higher Ed. Most recently, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted last month to shift $2.3 million of DEI spending toward public safety and policing on campus. Then, the entire UNC System Board of Governors voted to abolish DEI policies in place since 2019 at all 17 of its campuses.

A chilling effect

Many of the efforts to roll back DEI initiatives in states have the same roots as a campaign against critical race theory spearheaded by Seattle documentary filmmaker Christopher Rufo, who in 2020 elevated a once-obscure theory about the pervasiveness of racism in American law and institutions to a household term.

Often, efforts to undo DEI initiatives argue that students — especially white students — are harmed by learning about the history of racism in the United States because it may leave them feeling guilty or ashamed of their identity. Multiple states, including North Dakota, have adopted near-identical language in anti-DEI legislation that bans instruction that might prompt a person to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”

In April, polling by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist found that 77% of Republicans say they believe that “discrimination against white people is as problematic as discrimination against Black Americans.”

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Anti-DEI laws have had a chilling effect on higher education wherever they’ve been enacted, said Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit membership association of faculty and other academic professionals.

“The laws are deliberately vague so that professors have to be constantly thinking, ‘If I say this, will I be breaking the law? Will I lose my job or be arrested by the government if I say this in my classroom?’“ Mulvey said. “I mean, that’s where we are in America in 2024. These are the worries faculty have in an authoritarian society, and they have no place in a democracy.”

At the University of Texas, anti-DEI legislation led the system to eliminate 300 positions recently and to cut diversity training programs at multiple campuses.

The situation is similar in Florida, said Paul Ortiz, a professor of history and a union leader at the University of Florida. He’s leaving the school after 15 years for a position at Cornell University in New York. The fallout from the state’s DEI policies wasn’t the only reason he’s leaving — he got a great job offer — but it contributed to his decision, Ortiz said.

“To pretend that it’s not having an effect on the cultural and intellectual life of the state is the worst thing of all,” Ortiz said. “I’m hoping the pendulum is going to swing back.”

Students are the real losers, Mulvey said. At the University of Oklahoma, for example, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order ending DEI programs in state offices and agencies effectively shuttered the National Education for Women’s Leadership program. The program encourages undergraduate women to engage in politics and public policy. Since its founding in 2002, more than 650 students have attended.

Stitt told the Oklahoma Voice that his executive order was about race, not the women’s leadership program, and called the backlash against his policy “political criticism.”

“What we’re seeing now is nobody’s helped when these offices are closed or programs are shut down, no one’s better off,” Mulvey said. “We’re having watered-down discussions and anodyne classes because faculty without tenure are afraid of losing their job if they say the wrong thing or if someone takes it out of context or tapes them and puts it online.”

DEI statements

DEI statements in university hiring have been one of the easiest targets nationwide, in part because there’s less support for them even among more progressive educators who support wider DEI initiatives.

Editorial boards and columnists at outlets as varied as The Washington PostThe Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Post have railed against diversity statements, saying they too often result in “self-censorship and ideological policing” on college campuses. Many elite universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, have reconsidered DEI statements as a requirement of employment applications. At best, critics argue, they’re boilerplate that echoes what employers want to hear, rendering them useless. At their worst, they serve as ideological litmus tests.

“We can build an inclusive environment in many ways, but compelled statements impinge on freedom of expression, and they don’t work,” MIT President Sally Kornbluth said in a statement to WBUR in May, confirming the university’s new approach.

But DEI statements have their defenders. Suzanne Penuel, an associate professor who teaches first-year literature and writing at the University of South Carolina Lancaster, said she witnessed how high-quality DEI statements set job candidates apart when she served on the hiring committee for a position teaching American history. Nearly all academic applicants have polished curriculum vitae, impeccable recommendations and pitch-perfect cover letters, she wrote in an op-ed in The State.

Their DEI statements gave them personality, Penuel said in an interview. It was easier to tell which applicants would take a student-centered approach to their work; one applicant wrote that the textbooks used in the school’s history courses ought to be free, an interpretation that the hiring committee viewed as an inclusive approach to education.

She worries that the assault on already slim DEI initiatives in South Carolina is a continuation of a trend that began with a 2021 legislative requirement that all college students be taught certain aspects of American history, and a proposed state-level ban on some books in elementary schools.

“I hope I never see the day when there is this prescribed list of texts from a narrow list of publishers, and only some topics can be discussed,” Penuel said.

In Utah, where Democrats hold just 14 of the 75 seats in the state House of Representatives, Romero fought unsuccessfully to keep the anti-DEI legislation from passing.

Her reasons for opposing the legislation were partly personal. As a first-generation college student at the University of Utah, she took advantage of what was then called the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, an academic advising center that could now be considered a DEI initiative. It was a safe place in a state where the dominant religion and culture often excludes people of color, Romero said.

Because of her association with the center, Romero landed an internship at the state legislature in 1994, leading to a career working in municipal government in Salt Lake City. And now, she serves as president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.

“Because of that, I’m here now,” Romero said on the House floor when the bill was up for debate. “What it did is it addressed the disparities. … There’s unintentional consequences when we just try to sweep things and say we’re all the same, because we’re not. There’s still a lot of things that have to change in this country for us all to be on a level playing field.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

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