Republican lawmaker pulls his ‘too harsh’ bill to eliminate diversity offices at Utah universities

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, acknowledged Monday that he would like to further study the idea and talk to stakeholders.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senator John D. Johnson pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

A controversial bill to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion offices and leadership positions at Utah’s public universities has been shelved after the sponsor said he recognized his proposal was “way too harsh.”

Sen. John Johnson, a staunch conservative from North Ogden who has led the charge against discussions of racism in the classroom, amended SB283 and asked that it be moved to a study item that lawmakers will look into in the interim, after the session concludes this week.

The vote to do so from the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday was met with quiet claps and a few cheers from the packed hearing room, where many had come to oppose the measure. Many have seen SB283 as just the latest in a lineup of bills this session attacking diversity.

“Our children need to know who they are,” said Dr. Dianne McAdams-Jones, who is Black and a current nursing professor at Utah Valley University, before the committee. “They also should not be ashamed of their history. We need to support diversity.”

The bill drew widespread attention after it was published last week, along with another measure, HB451, that sought to ban schools from asking an applicant anything about their work to further inclusion, including those applying for a job or a college or K-12 program.

HB451 from Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, also failed in a Senate committee Monday morning on a 1-4 vote after previously passing on the House floor last week. That likely means it will not be passed this session. Johnson was the sole yes vote on that measure and suggested during that meeting that “anti-racism is racism.”

Utah’s only Black state lawmaker, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, spoke against the measures in an impassioned speech that has been shared widely online. She questioned what has been happening this session and why her colleagues have been bringing up these bills.

“I don’t know what we’re doing any more,” she said. “… I don’t know what the fear is.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks to the crowd at the Utah Juneteenth Celebration at the Ogden City Amphitheater, Saturday, June 18, 2022.

The motivations behind SB283

Even while he supported pulling his bill this session, Johnson did say Monday that he stands behind his original motivation for drafting it.

“Many of my stakeholders have spoken and shared concerns that the current diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies within public universities may prioritize promoting particular political or social ideologies over academic rigor and intellectual diversity,” he said.

According to his conflict of interest form — filed by every state lawmaker — Johnson is currently a professor at Utah State University, which has its own Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and recently hired its inaugural vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, also referred to as DEI.

Most colleges in the state have similar offices and officers.

Johnson didn’t mention his university position Monday, but instead said he wants to safeguard institutions of higher education from “DEI bureaucracies” to help them maintain academic freedom.”

“We cannot allow political or social agenda[s] to override truth and knowledge,” he said.

Johnson said roughly $11 million is spent on the programs at Utah colleges and universities every year. And he wants more accountability for that funding. He now is pushing for a study on what the programs do and who they help.

The senator also said he didn’t feel he had given a fair chance for all stakeholders to weigh in and hopes to do that in the interim. His proposal, he said, was meant to “bring people to the table and start honest conversations,” but he acknowledged, “we may have got the balance a little off.”

“I want to pull back the rhetoric and try to find solutions,” Johnson said. “I think the original was a shot over the bow that was quite a bit strong. … In no way do I feel that we should eliminate Black history or any [thing] even protecting the safety of students. But I just feel like we have to have a robust discussion.”

He added: “I think it’s way too harsh to just cut off those departments.”

Johnson said he became concerned about the issue after getting an email from Reed Hammond, a white student at Southern Utah University. Hammond joined Johnson on Monday at the committee and said he has served on multiple DEI councils in the state, but is concerned about their direction.

“The issue that I’ve taken with these councils is they aren’t a place for dialogue so much as one true idea,” he said.

Opposition to the bill

His comments were followed by remarks from Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner for higher education in the state, and Taylor Randall, the president of the University of Utah, where there is also a DEI division and a vice president who leads that. Both said the diversity offices across the universities here are important for access.

Randall said roughly one third of students at the U. come from multicultural backgrounds. And the centers support those students as they apply for college and work toward graduation.

Right now, the president acknowledged, when it comes to race: “We don’t do particularly well.”

The DEI programs and offices help give students a place to find community and thrive, he said, when “the disparities are real.” He also noted that those efforts are often a requirement for universities degrees and departments to be accredited.

McAdams-Jones spoke next during the limited public comment period, sharing that she is the daughter of a sharecropper, a model of farming that came out of slavery and continued to oppress Black individuals.

“My fair skin is the result of rape from ancestral white men in my family,” she told the committee.

The professor said she wants to see Utah work to improve its diversity efforts — not dismantle them. She’s personally been pushing, she said, to recruit more individuals of color to work here.

“We cannot bring people here if we continue with these bills, though,” she said. “My family and I, we’re all Black people, and we get asked to defend Utah every day. We get asked, ‘How can you be in that racist state?’ And I say because there are good people here. And I want to be part of that good.”

She was originally the only audience member of color who was allowed to speak. But then the committee made an exception to also hear from James Evans, who is Black and the former head of the Utah Republican Party. He urged lawmakers to listen to communities of color in the state.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans gives a speech on Saturday, May 19, 2017.

Similarly, the Utah Black Roundtable issued a statement against the original draft of the bill, saying it would lead to people being “oppressed and discriminated” against. The group mentioned state leaders — including the governor — signing the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in 2020, where they acknowledged racism and vowed to fight disparities.

The group questioned what happened to those promises.

They were joined in opposition by Utah Tech Leads, which represents the growing tech industry in the state, and which said the bill would hurt the ability of tech businesses to bring in new and diverse staff.

“SB283 is not just anti-diversity, it’s anti-business,” Utah Tech Leads wrote in a statement. “We urge our legislators to oppose this and any other anti-diversity legislation. Doing so is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for the future of our state’s economy.”

There was little discussion from the legislative committee on the bill after it was amended into a study. Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Latino Democrat representing Salt Lake City, thanked Johnson for making the changes and stopping her from “reading a five minute speech” opposing the bill.

Democrats in both the Senate and House joined her in opposition.