What we know so far about the anti-DEI bills in the works for Utah’s upcoming legislative session

At least three Republican state lawmakers are working on proposals that could target college diversity offices and hiring efforts. The measures are in line with comments made by Gov. Spencer Cox.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, left, R-North Ogden, and Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden.

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Conservative state lawmakers have pledged that they will interrogate and rein in diversity efforts across Utah’s public colleges during the upcoming legislative session.

It’s a push that started and sputtered out here last year — but has regained steam in the interim, as well as support from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

“It’s nice to have his backing on this,” said Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, who will be leading at least one of the proposals when the session starts on Jan. 16. “This is an effort now that’s much bigger than me.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in higher education are meant to support students from underrepresented backgrounds, including race and ethnicity, as well as single parents or individuals with disabilities, to help them through college.

But Republicans in Utah — and across the nation — have said the initiatives have gotten out of hand. Cox said he is concerned by how much money is spent on the diversity offices at Utah’s schools and suggested he hasn’t seen the outcomes to support that funding. He also railed against colleges requiring what he called “diversity statements you have to sign to get hired,” saying the practice is “bordering on evil.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

During a news conference last month that has drawn widespread attention, the governor said: “I can assure you after this legislative session, it will not be happening here in the state of Utah.”

The state’s eight public colleges and universities have said those statements don’t exist in the way Cox described, though some acknowledged they ask employees to write a statement about their own beliefs regarding equity and diversity as part of their job application. Meanwhile, students and employees have spoken out in support of what diversity offices accomplish in buoying those who might be at a disadvantage coming into higher education.

It is shaping into a battleground topic in the ongoing culture wars and one of the most anticipated discussions to come during the 45-day legislative session — where it’s expected to hit fast and early.

Here is what we know so far about the three bills being drafted by Republican legislators to hem in DEI initiatives across the state.

One lawmaker’s says he wants ‘fairness for everybody’

Last year, Johnson made waves toward the end of the session when he introduced a bill to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion offices and leadership positions at Utah’s public universities.

The senator, who has also led the charge against discussions of racism in K-12 classrooms, quickly shelved the bill after outcry — including an impassioned speech from Utah’s only Black state lawmaker, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, as well as comments from University of Utah President Taylor Randall.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins speaks during a session of the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

At the time Johnson said he recognized his proposal was “too harsh” and promised to crowdsource and revise it for this year.

Johnson told The Salt Lake Tribune that he has done that, though he said he still is working out final details and declined to comment specifically on what the bill aims at. “I still kind of want to be flexible,” he said.

But the senator said that his bill will tackle what he sees as “fairness for everybody” at public colleges. He believes when university offices support specific student populations, like Latino or Black students, it is divisive and exclusionary to others.

“We need to focus efforts at universities on students and individuals, rather than groups,” he said. “It needs to be focused and fair to everyone.”

He said he has heard that more students of color are first-generation college students than white students, which is true. But instead of focusing on those students of color, he said, and excluding white students who might also be the first in their families to attend school, he would rather see an office for all first-generation students — which he sees as making access more broad and available to all instead of a few.

Similarly, he would rather see efforts to support students from families living below the poverty level than offices based on race or ethnicity. He described it as “basing it on a demographic characteristic rather than the color of someone’s skin.”

Johnson said he doesn’t want state money spent “to help one group over another simply because of their membership to a group.”

Last year, Johnson said roughly $11 million is spent on DEI programs at Utah colleges and universities every year — a number he said came from legislative research. That is taxpayer funded, and he feels there is an obligation to spend it in a way that yields notable results.

When asked what outcomes a DEI office would need to show to be seen as successful, Johnson did not have specific examples but instead pointed to the governor also questioning what metrics the programs are hitting.

“There’s a clear role of education and making people better citizens and more productive citizens,” Johnson said. “And if we don’t have a return on that investment, we have to ask ourselves, why are we doing this? What are we getting in return?”

He said part of his drive, too, comes from the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to ban affirmative action — meant to open opportunities for individuals from minority and underrepresented backgrounds — with university acceptances. He would like to see colleges, in general, stop focusing on race.

He feels, with those efforts, higher education has moved away from its mission to educate students — and has started to be biased against conservatives who attend or work there. He says they need to do more to embrace “viewpoint diversity.”

“This is a case where the pendulum has swung too far from where it was,” he said.

Johnson started as a professor at the University of Mississippi. He took a break, started a software company, and then returned as a professor at Utah State University. In the time in between, he said: “Having been inside that system and seen what’s happening, it’s more difficult for a conservative within the system than it was when I first started.”

He said he supports the recent initiative measure from the Utah System of Higher Education that mandates the leadership of public universities in the state be neutral on political issues. It also puts limitations on student speech, including that one group cannot shout down another — even if they disagree on an issue or feel it’s hate speech.

That came after a student group at the University of Utah, MECHA, had its sponsorship pulled after the school said it disrupted a conservative club’s event that was critical of the transgender community.

Johnson said he wants to see universities embrace and support “viewpoint diversity” going forward.

Another legislator looks at university ‘litmus tests’

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, similarly ran a bill on DEI last session that she is looking to revive.

Her previous attempt sought to ban schools — both public colleges and K-12 schools — from asking an applicant anything about their work to further inclusion and diversity. It passed through the House, but got held up in a Senate committee.

The idea was in line with what Cox has recently been targeting in his statements.

Hall did not respond to several requests to talk to The Tribune for this story, but a spokesperson for the Utah House sent a statement from her.

In that, Hall said she is “concerned by the countless examples of litmus tests required by Utah’s higher education institutions” in hiring faculty and staff. That’s what she said she intends to look at with her proposal this session.

She said she has been working with “lawmakers, the executive branch, professors, and higher education stakeholders to better understand DEI requirements and find a path forward that creates equal opportunities for all.”

Hall recently told KSL that she is worried by how many job postings for the state’s public colleges and universities require applicants to provide a comment on their diversity beliefs. She estimated that 15-20% of the University of Utah’s applications included that.

A representative examines all employers and DEI beliefs

A third bill for this session looks at DEI — but while it includes public universities, it isn’t limited to just them.

Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, wants to make sure that all employers in the state, both public and private, do not have any kind of requirement for an employee to sign a paper or check a box promising to agree to any beliefs on diversity or inclusion.

He said employers have a First Amendment right to say what their company stands for. But, he added, employees have the same right not to be compelled to agree to something they don’t believe.

Jimenez said he has heard from state employees who have expressed concern about this, which spurred him to look into the issue.

He sees it as a continuation of his efforts from last session, with HB427, focused on what he calls “individual freedom” in education. That bill passed and was signed into law and now prohibits K-12 schools from teaching students that they are responsible for any past racism, sexism or other discrimination.

That bill was an offshoot of the Legislature’s earlier effort to ban from K-12 schools any discussion of critical race theory, a college-level academic framework that posits that the country’s institutions were formed from racist principles. There is no evidence that was being widely taught here.

Jimenez said his new bill now takes that same idea and puts it in the workplace.

(Courtesy photo) Pictured is Rep. Tim Jimenez.

He said he hasn’t figured out all of the mechanics of it yet — including what limitations the state could place on private employers.

“That’s the area we’re working in to get everything in the language right,” he said. “We want people to have jobs. But we don’t want people to not be employed because they practice their own beliefs.”