Politics and Race
Lawmakers Expand Their Assult on Colleges' DEI Efforts
By Adrienne Lu
Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on March 9, 2023
State lawmakers in 13 states have introduced at least 21 bills since December that aim to restrict colleges’ efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, a Chronicle analysis has found.
While supporters argue that the measures are needed to push back against a “bureaucracy” that impedes intellectual diversity, critics warn that the measures could drastically curtail colleges’ efforts to recruit and retain students of color and place the institutions afoul of accreditation standards.
Explore maps and read descriptions and status of bills in states where lawmakers are seeking to restrict colleges’ DEI efforts.
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The Chronicle’s analysis included bills that would ban diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, staff, or programming; end mandatory diversity training; prohibit diversity statements in admissions, hiring, or promotions; or stop giving preference to applicants for admission or employment based on characteristics such as race and sex.
The Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes targeted those four areas in model state legislation proposed this year, with the authors arguing that efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion stifle intellectual diversity and are often discriminatory.
Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, one of the authors of model state legislation, said he was struck — and heartened — by how quickly state lawmakers have moved to rein in colleges’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. “Six months ago, I was despairing at the prospect of any sort of reform in higher education to push back on the illiberal tide,” Shapiro said. Now, he said, he is “a little less pessimistic” but still waiting to see what happens.
PEN America’s Jeremy C. Young, senior manager for free expression and education, said that taken all together, the bills targeting diversity efforts across the country raise concerns about government overreach, because they affect areas that should be determined at the college level. In addition, he said, the policies “send a message to students” and “faculty of color from marginalized communities, that there is a lack of interest on the part of the government in supporting them when they’re on campus.”
None of the latest round of bills has been signed into law yet; at least two, in Utah, failed to advance before the end of that state’s legislative session on March 3. Utah’s Senate Bill 283, which would have eliminated diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and staff at public colleges, was replaced with a study bill after its sponsor, State Sen. John Johnson, a Republican, said he wanted to “pull back the rhetoric and try to find solutions” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The policies “send a message to students” and “faculty of color from marginalized communities that there is a lack of interest on the part of the government in supporting them when they’re on campus.”
The bills across the country vary in scope: some propose more limited versions of the bans outlined in the model legislation, while others cover far more ground. Florida’s House Bill 999 is the most expansive of the bills, turning Gov. Ron DeSantis’s conservative vision for higher education into legislation covering a broad range of measures, including prohibiting public colleges from funding projects that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric” and shifting more power over faculty hiring and employment to trustees. (Critical race theory postulates that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also embedded in legal systems and policies.)
Young called Florida’s H.B. 999 “draconian,” saying that it would put in place “extremely broad restrictions on every aspect of college governance” that have nothing to do with diversity.
Several of the bills would open up colleges to potential lawsuits from students, faculty members, staff, or alumni for potential violations of the law.
Bills introduced in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia would prohibit public colleges from having diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, staff, or programming. Iowa’s Board of Regents opposes House Study Bill 218, which would prohibit public colleges from having diversity, equity and inclusion offices or staff, saying that ending those programs could have a negative impact on federal research contracts, accreditation, and training that mitigates legal risks, according to the Des Moines Register.
Karma Chávez, a member of the executive committee of the University of Texas at Austin’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion are “integrated into every aspect of the experience at a university” and benefit all students, not just historically underrepresented ones.
“These attacks on DEI actually seek to politicize higher education,” said Chávez, who also serves as a chair and professor in the department of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at the university. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, she said, “really are about creating space for excellence for the most possible people.”
Some states are moving in the opposite direction. In New Jersey, a bill introduced in February would require public colleges to develop faculty and student diversity plans, including specific goals to increase the recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff.
In some states, efforts to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at public colleges have taken place outside state legislatures. In North Carolina, for example, the university system’s Board of Governors voted in February to prohibit “compelled speech,” a measure that appears to target diversity statements. The chancellors of the Texas A&M and Texas State systems recently eliminated requirements for diversity statements in hiring.
Meanwhile, Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina’s public colleges have all been asked to describe, in varying levels of detail, spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Republicans in several states have criticized spending on efforts to improve diversity as wasteful. In Virginia, on the other hand, a Senate subcommittee voted down a bill that would have required public colleges to publish the salaries of their diversity, equity, and inclusion staff.
Audrey Williams June, Kate Marijolovic, Julian Roberts-Grmela, and Eva Surovell contributed reporting to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2023, issue.
We welcome your thoughts and questions about this article. Please email the editors or submit a letter for publication.
DIVERSITY, EQUITY, & INCLUSIONLAW & POLICYPOLITICAL INFLUENCE & ACTIVISMDEI LEGISLATION
Adrienne Lu writes about politics in higher education and students — with a focus on underrepresented students. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @adriennelu.