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The GOP’s newest culture war target: College diversity programs 

To save free speech on college campuses, Republican lawmakers and governors say it’s time to stop talking about diversity, equity and inclusion.

A movement to temper difficult conversations about race in the classroom, promote “patriotic” education and limit how gender is discussed with young kids now includes nixing college DEI initiatives conservatives equate with “wokeness” and Cold War-era “loyalty oaths.”

In Florida, lawmakers are advancing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to prohibit public universities from funding diversity, equity and inclusion programs and requiring commitments to diversity in statements during hiring. The wide-ranging legislation would also eliminate majors or minors that touch on critical race theory and “radical” feminist or gender theories.

“We are not going to back down to the woke mob, and we will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country,” said DeSantis, who held a roundtable this month on what he called divisive concepts. “Florida students will receive an education, not a political indoctrination.”

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott also stepped into this fight, issuing a directive last month instructing public universities across the state to stop considering DEI statements in their hiring practices. GOP-controlled statehouses in Iowa, Missouri and elsewhere are also scrutinizing higher education diversity initiatives, and legislation has been introduced in at least a dozen states aimed at cutting DEI spending and rewriting hiring guidelines at colleges and universities.

DEI programs have existed for decades across school and government with the goal of both increasing the share of people on campus or in the office from communities historically discriminated against, such as women and religious minorities, and making them feel accepted once they arrive.

“In American higher education, we have been working to make campuses diverse and inclusive for well over 100 years,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents the nation’s colleges and universities. “This is not about teaching white students to be ashamed or teaching Black students to hate white students. This is about making campuses inclusive communities where everybody can prosper.”

But after corporate and educational efforts to supercharge diversity, equity and inclusion programs following the public outrage over George Floyd’s police killing in 2020, many Republicans believe the initiatives promote exclusion and division based on race, a critique that has resonated with conservative voters. It’s a flurry of legislative and executive activity that is advancing as the U.S. Supreme Court also seems poised to ban the use of affirmative action in college admissions later this year.

“It's good for universities to aspire to be welcoming places to people from many backgrounds, many different experiences, many different perspectives,” said Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. “But that very good thing has mutated into something not good. … Simply because we like the word diversity and we like the word inclusion … doesn't mean that DEI initiatives are good.”

According to Greene, GOP lawmakers are looking to dismantle DEI in at least three different ways: striking down the use of diversity statements used for hiring or promotions, ending required social curriculum, and eliminating what they call the “DEI bureaucracy” — practitioners on campus in charge of facilitating diversity efforts. But it does not mean conservatives are against diversity, he said.

Colleges and practitioners, however, argue that these measures could stifle academic freedom and halt diversity efforts needed to ensure a welcoming environment for students, especially those from marginalized backgrounds.

“I don't use the acronym D-E-I any longer because it's been conflated with something that has been weaponized against the breadth and the depth of the work that's being done on campus communities,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of National Association Diversity Officers and Higher Education. “I don't believe that there is a deep understanding of what this might mean to campuses.”

Granberry Russell, whose group is composed of diversity practitioners, scholars and researchers at universities, said her members are concerned about how the rollback of these initiatives will affect their jobs. They question what programming and professional development they could have, and what message these practices will send to prospective students and job applicants.

Abbott, who barred universities state agencies from using DEI statements, said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers: “Diversity is something that we support.”

But in a February letter first reported by the Texas Tribune, Abbott’s chief of staff Gardner Pate wrote that using the statements during the hiring process violates federal and state employment laws. Public colleges in the state were quick to abide by it.

Texas A&M University announced this month that it would no longer have diversity statements when hiring. University of Houston Chancellor Renu Khator soon followed, saying her institution “will not support or use DEI statements or factors in hiring or promotion anywhere in the University of Houston System” to stay in compliance with state law.

The University of Texas Board of Regents also paused any new policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion and are seeking a report on current policies across their campuses. While UT still strives for diversity on campus, Board Chair Kevin Eltife said “certain DEI efforts have strayed from the original intent to now imposing requirements and actions that, rightfully so, has raised the concerns of our policymakers around those efforts on campuses across our entire state.”

Greene, of the Heritage Foundation, said using diversity statements in hiring, promotions or assessing faculty tenure “seems to bear a lot of resemblance to loyalty oaths that were required during the McCarthy era where people had to declare that they weren't communists.”

In Georgia, Republicans lawmakers are also looking to ban DEI in education hiring practicesthrough a bill dubbed the “End Political Litmus Tests In Education Act,” SB 261. The Missouri legislature is considering a similar measure to ban public colleges from requiring applicants to submit DEI statements.

This month, South Carolina lawmakers sparred over eliminating funding for DEI efforts from the state’s public colleges during its broader budget negotiations. In Iowa, the Board of Regents announced that it is taking on a comprehensive review of all DEI programs and efforts and pausing any new ones at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Meanwhile in Florida, lawmakers advanced the wide-ranging measure sought by DeSantis that would bar universities and colleges from spending on programs linked to diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory.

The legislation also calls on the state university system’s Board of Governors to direct schools to remove any major or minor of study that is “based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology” tied to critical race theory. This includes Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.

Critical race theory is an analytical framework for examining how racism has been systemic to American society and institutions after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Many conservatives use critical race theory as shorthand for a broader critique of how race and social issues are being taught in the K-12 education system.

The bill would also weaken or eliminate the roles created at institutions to support students. Recognizing the needs of students based on how they identify, and providing academic and social support is a key role diversity practitioners have long taken on in higher education, Granberry Russell said.

“If we go back to a time when those needs were ignored, not specifically addressed, not tailored to what those students’ needs are,” she said, “what does that represent? You're not welcome here.”

Andrew Atterbury contributed to this report.

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