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Oklahoma ACLU, partners say University of Oklahoma misinterpreted new DEI policy

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt displays a signed executive order prohibiting funding for certain DEI programs.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt displays a signed executive order prohibiting funding for certain DEI programs.

The ACLU’s Oklahoma chapter and other partners say the response from the University of Oklahoma to a recent executive order regarding diversity, equity and inclusion programs is overblown.

Immediately following Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s signing of an executive order to prohibit funding for certain DEI programs, OU President Joseph Harroz issued a statement saying the new policy eliminates DEI departments at all public state universities.

The ACLU of Oklahoma, the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm Schulte Roth and Zabel LLP disagree.

“Despite the University of Oklahoma’s statements, the order does not require that Oklahoma universities eliminate all DEI offices,” the statement reads. “Exceptions and limiting language appear throughout the order, leaving universities with ample room to continue the necessary work of DEI, if they have the will to do so.”

A request for response from OU to the ACLU statement was not returned by time of publication. This story will be updated if OU responds.

The state’s two largest universities responded with widely varying interpretations of the policy. Harroz said it will comply with the order to eliminate DEI offices. But a statement from Oklahoma State University President Kayse Shrum was markedly different:

“While we will ensure we meet our legal obligations, an initial review indicates that no significant changes to our processes or practices are needed.”

In the two sections of the EO that list the prohibitions, one section is applicable to “executive state agencies,” while the other specifies it is for “executive state agencies, including institutions of higher education.”

In its statement — referring to the section that specifically mentions higher education institutions — the ACLU and partners say the executive order is “dangerous” and that “only a handful of sentences apply to universities, and they do not require that universities eliminate DEI programs.”

“The EO requires a ‘review’ of such offices and programs and only ‘if deemed necessary’ are universities required to ‘restructure and/or eliminate DEI programs,’” the statement reads. “Other Oklahoma universities have stated they will initiate such a ‘review.’ But according to a statement from OU’s president, OU has apparently skipped to the worst possible outcome and decided to eliminate all its DEI programs.”

The other section — which does not specifically name higher education institutions but only “executive state agencies” — prohibits state funds, property or resources from going to certain DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures, programs and mandatory trainings at executive state agencies “to the extent they grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, ethnicity or national origin over another’s.”

That section also prohibits funding from going to executive state agency programs that:

  • Mandate a person to swear, certify or agree to a loyalty oath favoring one race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin over another’s.
  • Mandate a person to certify or declare agreement with, recognition of, or adherence to, any particular political, philosophical, religious or other ideological viewpoint.
  • Mandate an applicant for employment to provide a DEI statement or give any applicant preferential consideration based on the applicant providing a DEI statement.
  • Mandate any person to disclose their pronouns.

As for a timeline, the order says agencies should become fully compliant “as soon as practicable,” but no later than May 31, 2024. Prior to that date, agencies are ordered to provide a certificate of compliance and a report to state officials describing the entity’s DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures and programs in existence and identify what parts, if any, were restructured or eliminated due to the EO.

If an agency fails to comply, they’ll end up on a list that goes to specific appropriations committees, implying a probable cut in funding.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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