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A conservative quest to limit diversity programs gains momentum in states

An effort to limit diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is gaining momentum in state capitals and college campuses

By DAVID A. LIEB, Associated Press
Published: April 24, 2024, 1:17pm

A conservative quest to limit diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is gaining momentum in state capitals and college governing boards, with officials in about one-third of the states now taking some sort of action against it.

Tennessee became the latest when the Republican governor this week signed legislation that would prohibit banks and other financial institutions from considering a customer’s participation — or lack thereof — in “diversity, equity and inclusion training” or “social justice programming.”

That came shortly after the Democratic governor in Kansas allowed legislation to become law without her signature that will prohibit statements about diversity, equity or inclusion from being used in decisions about student admissions, financial aid or employment at higher education institutions.

Last week, Iowa’s Republican-led Legislature also gave final approval to a budget bill that would ban all DEI offices and initiatives in higher education that aren’t necessary to comply with accreditation or federal law. The measure expands upon a directive last year from the Iowa Board of Regents to eliminate DEI staff positions.

Republican lawmakers in about two dozen states have filed bills seeking to restrict DEI initiatives this year. They are countered by Democrats who have sponsored supportive DEI measures in about 20 states. Altogether, lawmakers have proposed about 150 bills this year that would either restrict or promote DEI efforts, according to an Associated Press analysis using the legislation-tracking software Plural.

WHAT’S AT ISSUE?

Higher education institutions and many businesses have long devoted resources to improving diversity and inclusivity.

More recently, conservative groups began raising concerns that DEI initiatives are promoting an agenda that elevates racial or gender identity over individual merit. Since 2022, about half a dozen conservative or libertarian organizations have offered model measures to state lawmakers to eliminate DEI offices or prohibit the use of DEI criteria in training programs or employment, academic and financial decisions.

Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an architect of the movement, said in a recent article that the ultimate goal is to “abolish DEI in all American institutions.”

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The acronym DEI “has now been weaponized,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “And it’s taking us, unfortunately, back to a time that failed to acknowledge the inequities that persist today based on discriminatory practices.”

The Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California has launched a “National DEI Defense Fund.” Among other things, it provides free professional development courses where publicly funded DEI training has been banned.

ANTI-DEI LAWS

Republican-led Florida and Texas last year became the first states to adopt broad-based laws banning DEI efforts in higher education. Universities in Texas have since eliminated more than 100 DEI-related jobs and Florida universities also have been shedding positions.

Earlier this year, Republican governors in Alabama and Utah signed laws restricting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts not only in higher education but also in K-12 schools and throughout state government.

GOP governors in Idaho and Wyoming also signed legislation this year restricting the use of state funds for DEI efforts at higher education institutions. Other bills signed into law in Idaho and GOP-led Indiana prohibit the use of DEI statements in employment and admissions decisions at public colleges and universities.

A similar bill barring mandatory DEI statements in higher education passed Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature but got vetoed by the Democratic governor.

UNIVERSITY POLICIES

Facing political pressure, some universities have revised their practices regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.

University of Wisconsin regents agreed in December to shift at least 43 diversity positions to focus on “student success” and eliminate statements supporting diversity on student applications. The actions were part of a deal with lawmakers to release funding for pay raises and campus construction projects.

Large public university systems in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina are among those that have scrapped the use of diversity statements in employment decisions.

Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order in December barring state agencies and universities from supporting DEI programs that “grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin.”

The University of Oklahoma said its DEI office closed April 1 and the remaining employees are being reassigned to new roles.

SUPPORTING DEI

Some Democratic-led states have forged ahead with legislation to expand their emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in government and education.

Washington’s Democratic governor signed a law this year that requires diversity, equity and inclusion concepts to be incorporated into updated state learning standards for public K-12 schools.

Legislation given final approval this month by Maryland’s Democratic-led General Assembly requires the state’s retirement system to employ a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Various budget proposals also would allot money to specific state DEI efforts. As one example: Oregon’s Democratic governor signed legislation last week that provides $50,000 to the Columbia River Gorge Commission for a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.

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