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Kansas considers fining public universities for diversity programs

By 37ci3 Mar22,2024

Kansas lawmakers are joining Republicans in other states in trying to limit diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses, but they have drafted their own proposal to disagree on how to define DEI.

The Kansas House planned to vote Thursday on a bill aimed at preventing universities, community colleges or technical colleges from accepting students or hiring or promoting staff based on any statement or pledge about diversity, equity or inclusion. Although the bill contains these words, it also says that universities cannot require a statement about “any political ideology or movement.”

The vote came a week after the Senate approved a $25 billion state budget with a provision designed to force universities to eliminate such requirements and mandatory DEI training. The provision would withhold $35.7 million until the state’s six universities report to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature that they have done so.

In at least 20 states, Republicans have sought to limit DEI initiatives, arguing that they are discriminatory and enforce liberal political orthodoxy. Governor of Alabama signed the law anti-DEI bill on Wednesday; Utah passed the law earlier this year; and suggestions in Kentucky and South Carolina advanced this week.

Photo: Representative Steve Howe of Kansas
Kansas Rep. Steve Howe, left, R-Salina, right, answers questions from Rep. Ford Carr, R-Salina, during a House debate in Topeka on Wednesday.John Hanna / AP

“Universities have chosen to embrace ideologies that discriminate against people who don’t conform to their orthodoxy,” Central Kansas Republican and higher education committee chairman Steve Howe said during Wednesday’s House debate.

House approval will send the measure to the Senate on Thursday. As for the anti-DEI budget provision, negotiators in the two chambers expect to discuss it as they finalize the annual budget.

The House bill would establish a process to hear DEI complaints and give universities time to reverse controversial actions. But it also allows the attorney general to file civil lawsuits against universities and colleges and seek fines of up to $10,000.

A legislative audit released last month found that 1.6%, or $45 million, of annual spending at six public universities goes to DEI initiatives, but noted that each university defines DEI differently. In addition to initiatives traditionally seen as DEI, such as training and recruiting, they also include food pantries for poor students and services for military veterans and students with disabilities.

However, no Kansas measure specifies a DEI.

“It’s hard for me to pass a bill to punish a university for something we haven’t identified,” said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “The words diversity, equality and inclusion are positive words in themselves.”

Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said his chamber’s bill creates a simple test — whether a university requires ideological statements from students, job applicants or employees — that doesn’t require everyone to agree on how to define DEI. .

“Everybody has a different definition,” Hawkins said. “It’s pretty hard to get anyone to aspire to a definition.”

Similarly, Sen. JR Claeys, another central Kansas Republican who wrote the budget provision for his chamber, said it simply forces higher education officials to stop using race-based criteria in their decisions, similar to last year’s criteria. US Supreme Court decision affirmative action in universities is stopped.

Claes, one of the Senate’s budget negotiators and an adviser to Republican state Attorney General Kris Kobach, said financial threats are the best way to force universities to comply.

In statehouses across the United States, Republicans and Democrats advance opposing definitions of equity and opportunity in education and state jobs.

Democratic lawmakers in more than a dozen states are promoting more than 30 measures this year to demand greater consideration of diversity, equity and inclusion. Republican state lawmakers have opposed more than 60 measures to ban or limit it, according to an Associated Press analysis using the Plural bill tracker. Five of those GOP bills won final approval.

A new Utah law prohibits state agencies, universities and K-12 schools from having diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, a Republican, signed it legislation last week barred higher education institutions from considering statements to include in diversity, equity and employment, benefits or student admissions decisions. That legislation also specifies that any diversity program must address both “cultural and intellectual diversity.”

Republican lawmakers In Idaho and Wisconsin Bills passed last week to prohibit higher education institutions from conditioning employment and admissions decisions on diversity statements.

Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, is expected to veto his state’s legislation. In Kansas, Kelly did not say what the GOP would do if either proposal passed, but he vetoed an anti-DEI provision that was included in budget legislation last year.

The measure approved by Alabama lawmakers would prohibit state agencies, universities and K-12 school systems from sponsoring DEI programs. It would also prohibit forcing students or staff to adhere to a “divisive ideology,” which includes concepts such as white privilege, systemic discrimination, and the idea that meritocratic systems are in fact “racist or sexist.”

A new Alabama law that takes effect Oct. 1 would prohibit universities, K-12 school systems and state agencies from sponsoring DEI programs, which the bill defines as classes, training, programs and activities where attendance is based on a person’s race. gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation.

Legislation that passed the Kentucky House this week includes similar language in the definition of “discrimination” that would be barred from using state universities in curriculum or course requirements.

The Kansas House higher education committee struggled to come up with a definition. Another central Kansas Republican, Republican Clark Sanders, initially expressed doubts about the lack of one, but later came forward.

“I won’t be able to give you an explanation or a definition, but I’ll know it when I see it,” he said.

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