Bans on Public-College Diversity Offices Wouldn’t Affect Just State Funding
As conservative lawmakers across the country consider banning diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on college campuses, they often mention the need to protect their states’ taxpayers.
“While I strongly believe that public universities should allow a wide variety of debates and opinions, universities should not use taxpayer dollars to inculcate students with negative values,” said Carl H. Tepper, a Texas Republican, in a now-deleted February statement press release. Tepper’s statement, about three bills he introduced that would target diversity, equity, and inclusion, made several references to taxpayers, public institutions, and government entities. (Tepper’s office declined to make him available for an interview.)
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As conservative lawmakers across the country consider banning diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on public-college campuses, they often mention the need to protect their states’ taxpayers.
“While I strongly believe that public universities should allow a wide variety of debates and opinions, universities should not use taxpayer dollars to inculcate students with negative values,” said Carl Tepper, a Texas Republican, in a February statement. Tepper’s statement, about three bills he introduced that would target diversity, equity, and inclusion, made several references to taxpayers, public institutions, and government entities. (Tepper’s office declined to make him available for an interview.)
But Tepper’s proposal would not only target state funding. As written, it would also bar private dollars and federal grants from being spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Legislation introduced in three states — Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas — would prevent colleges from spending any money on diversity, equity, and inclusion offices or staff, according to The Chronicle’s DEI Legislation Tracker. Florida lawmakers stripped references to private money from a proposed diversity-spending ban before it passed the House this month; the most recent version of the bill would still prevent the use of federal funding. Similar bans were also proposed in Utah and West Virginia this year but failed to pass.
Colleges have long leveraged private and federal dollars to support their diversity work, such as programs to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in certain disciplines. Interest from private corporations and foundations in funding diversity projects grew even more after the racial reckoning touched off in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd. At the federal level, meanwhile, there are dozens of grant programs devoted to supporting colleges’ recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty.
If Republican legislatures enact sweeping bans on public-college spending, what will happen to the array of diversity programs, centers, and initiatives that are donor supported or federally funded?
A Gray Area
The extent to which state legislatures can regulate private and federal money seems to be a legal gray area. An official with the American Council on Education, higher ed’s main lobbying group, wasn’t yet sure what to make of it.
“It’s a great question. I never thought about it, to tell you the truth,” said Steven Bloom, the council’s assistant vice president of government relations.
Bloom said he had never heard of a prior instance in which a state prevented colleges from accepting a private donation for a particular purpose.
Even beyond the federal programs that directly support colleges’ diversity efforts, Bloom said, some federal research grants have conditions requiring institutions to provide diversity statements in order to accept the funding. Institutions might be unable to meet this requirement if they are in a state that passes a ban on the use of diversity statements.
Lawmakers’ efforts to target colleges’ diversity spending often mirror model legislation authored by the conservative Manhattan Institute, like one of Tepper’s proposals. The model bill specifies that private money and federal funding can’t be used for diversity efforts.
Some lawmakers have reached out to the institute this year to discuss the ideas in the bill, said Ilya Shapiro, Manhattan’s director of constitutional studies.
Shapiro, who helped write the model bill, said its goal is to eliminate diversity-related bureaucracies from colleges. Shapiro said a ban on the use of private funds was included because he believes diversity offices are not good for colleges, no matter how they’re paid for.
“It’s not just a misuse of taxpayer funds to fund these bureaucracies,” he said. “We think it’s a bad thing in general.”
On the question of restricting the use of private funds, Shapiro said a potential law’s ability to stand would hinge on states’ varying constitutions. In many states, legislatures can enforce restrictions on public institutions of higher education, he said.
Catherine Fisk, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, said it’s unclear at this point how some states’ anti-diversity proposals might fare in court, if they become law. Legal challenges to invalidate specific facets of diversity-related legislation may be more successful than broad challenges to an entire bill, Fisk said.
Ideology-based legislation like this hasn’t been seen since the Red Scare of the 1950s, Fisk said. Back then, many legislatures attempted to ban from public employment anyone who refused to swear an oath that they were not Communist, she said.
“Legislatures have in the past gone after particular job categories as a way of enforcing certain ideological viewpoints, and when those were challenged in the past, most of the constitutional challenges failed,” she said.
If states move forward with broad bans on public colleges’ diversity spending that also target other funding sources, the effects could be widespread, Bloom said.
The University of Houston’s College of Medicine received a $5-million gift from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas in 2020, $1.5 million of which was set to be used for a pipeline program to create a more diverse student body. Some of the funding was used to hire an assistant dean of diversity and outreach.
A University of Houston spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment about the status of the gift. The university announced last month that diversity statements will no longer be used in hiring or promotion.
Bloom said the repercussions of preventing colleges from spending, or even qualifying for, federal grants, many of which have diversity-related conditions, could be serious.
“States are going to suddenly start saying that institutions can’t accept that money because the federal government, in its wisdom, has made as a condition that an institution has to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion?” Bloom wondered. “I mean, it really is troubling and dangerous.”
The U.S. Department of Education awarded a $2.2-million grant to Western Iowa Tech Community College in January. The second phase of the grant is intended to help create a more equitable campus culture by funding a Center for Diversity Enrichment at the college, according to a press release announcing the grant.
But Iowa’s proposed ban on the funding of diversity programs makes no exception for federal grants. HF 616, a bill preventing public colleges from funding diversity, equity, and inclusion offices or hiring diversity officers, came after state lawmakers questioned university leaders in February about their spending on diversity administrators.
These proposed diversity bans typically include language stating that the legislation would not bar colleges from taking steps to comply with federal nondiscrimination statutes like Title VII, the employment law, and Title IX, the gender-equity law. Iowa’s current bill says it would not bar practices or activities “that are required pursuant to a contract or agreement with a federal governmental entity.” None of the bills, however, make a broad exception for federal grants.
Only a bill introduced in Tennessee, SB 603, which would prohibit medical institutions from requiring diversity training or including diversity-related material in teaching materials, includes a small caveat — saying that state entities may apply for federal health-care grants that support diversity.
Private Funding Ecosystem
While Idaho Republicans haven’t yet introduced a proposal to ban public colleges from funding diversity efforts, they have recently questioned campuses’ diversity spending, suggesting such a bill might be in the works.
If the legislature acted to restrict donations as part of such a ban, that would affect the University of Idaho, which uses private money to support nearly its entire diversity staff.
Of the 23 employees who work on diversity efforts, 21 are paid for with private donations, a university spokesperson said. Among the two employees who are paid partially with state funding, that portion of their salary is for work unrelated to diversity efforts.
The spokesperson told The Chronicle the private funding used to pay for staff “comes from a variety of other revenue sources, including industry support and gift funds.”
One of those private supporters is Micron Technology, which produces computer memory chips. Micron announced in February 2022 that it would give more than $1 million in grants to the University of Idaho and Boise State University to support programs that “expand equitable access to education” and diversify the engineering profession.
Fran Dillard, Micron’s vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, said donating to engineering programs in Idaho has not created any challenges for the company, despite the legislature’s recent criticism of diversity programs. As Micron sees it, Dillard said, the work the company is supporting helps increase all students’ access to STEM education.
“Significant benefits accrue to Idaho in the form of an educated, trained workforce that reflects a diversity of backgrounds and experiences,” Dillard wrote in an email. “Investing in the programs and policies needed to build the technology workforce of the future is critical for our business and for Idaho.”
Another wrinkle for the University of Idaho, should a ban on diversity funding emerge, is that the university’s engineering college is required to promote diversity to maintain accreditation. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, a nongovernmental organization that evaluates post-secondary education programs, mandates that institutions graduate students with “an ability to communicate with a range of audiences.” The board’s 2023-24 accreditation criteria includes an optional pilot standard focused on diversity.
Though state legislatures have yet to sign these proposed diversity-funding bans into law, they have already affected diversity efforts at some colleges. The Iowa Board of Regents told the state’s three public universities not to implement any new diversity programs in a statement issued last week. Earlier this month, four major college systems in Texas announced a pause on new diversity policies.
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said the goals of such bans on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are clear: to silence diverse campuses and dismantle infrastructure supporting students, which she said would ultimately limit academic freedom.
Granberry Russell said these bans are creating a false narrative of the power that diversity, equity, and inclusion offices have.
“Diversity does not necessarily result in equity, and creating a more equitable community can lead to inclusion,” she said, “but that’s aspirational.”