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What is the future of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Oklahoma?

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
Oklahoma State Capitol Building

Legislation to prohibit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Oklahoma colleges could return to the state Capitol next year, despite these initiatives being mandatory for public universities.

Conservative speakers at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday provided model legislation for state lawmakers to use as a template to ban public universities from funding or staffing a diversity, equity and inclusion office. Model bills also proposed blocking diversity training and affirmative action protocols in student admissions and employee hiring.

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, said the prepared legislation is “maybe something we might consider doing here in Oklahoma” and asked to share it with other state lawmakers.

“Today that’s what we see all over our college campuses is ideology being crammed down the throats of young kids,” Standridge said.

Standridge Universities’ accreditation and their compliance with federal law both depend on having diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Oklahoma’s top higher education official said.

Regardless, other states like Florida and Texas have enacted bans on these programs for their colleges and universities. Diversity initiatives have come under fire from Republican leaders in Oklahoma, too, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent Ryan Walters.

Senate Bill 870 from Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, sought to prohibit funding and support for these initiatives in Oklahoma universities, but the bill never got a committee hearing this year. Lawmakers have the option to consider it in the 2024 legislative session.

Speakers from conservative organizations referred to diversity efforts as a distraction from academic learning and a way to elevate certain groups at the cost of others, particularly those with conservative views.

Programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion are required for all public universities and many private institutions in Oklahoma both by federal law and accrediting authorities.

Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Allison Garrett said an institution’s loss of accreditation could cost students their federal financial aid, their option to transfer class credits to other schools, and their ability to meet employer or licensure requirements.

Diversity programs aren’t solely focused on race and gender, Garrett said. They support students who are veterans, single parents and refugees, along with others who are low income, first-generation students and disabled, among other groups and backgrounds.

Companies and colleges alike are preparing for a workforce that will become majority non-white within the next decade, she said.

“We’re trying very hard in our higher education system to prepare students for that workforce that they are entering,” Garrett told lawmakers. “Our hope is that as they complete their college degrees that they will be wonderful contributing members of our society as our society continues to evolve.”

Garrett offered similar remarks to the Oklahoma State Department of Education earlier this year after Walters demanded a report of all expenditures on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at higher education institutions.

The report found universities expect to spend $10.2 million this year on these programs, which Walters called “Marxist.” About $3.4 million of that yearly total would come from state funds.

Lawmakers could cut $10 million or more from Oklahoma’s higher education funding to offset spending on diversity initiatives and instead put that money toward scholarships for workforce needs, said Jonathan Small, president of the conservative nonprofit the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

“I could draft you an appropriations bill today that could redirect those dollars from higher ed if you would like me to,” Small said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.
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