‘Untested’: Utah’s higher education commissioner questions anti-DEI bill approach

Two rallies against the controversial measure were held Monday, but HB261 was passed out of a Senate committee.

Utah’s commissioner over higher education spoke out for the first time Monday on the bill that would overhaul diversity offices at the state’s public colleges and universities, calling the approach “untested” and “difficult to implement.”

In measured remarks before the Senate Education Committee, Geoff Landward said it’s hard to know yet all the ways the fast-tracked measure will affect schools. But he anticipates “to the extent that the law inhibits our mission of increasing access and increasing completion” rates for students, he plans on “inevitably” returning to the Capitol again to address those consequences.

“We’ll be back asking for your help,” he said.

Landward is the highest ranking official over Utah’s eight public colleges and universities, as well as the eight technical colleges here, collectively referred to as the Utah System of Higher Education. To date, no presidents of those institutions have given their opinions on the conservative-led measure — notable silence that comes after new rules were passed in the fall requiring university and college leaders in the state to remain neutral on political issues.

At least two university presidents, for Weber State and Salt Lake Community College, sat in the audience during the committee hearing for HB261 Monday, but neither spoke. The meeting likely marked the last chance for public comment before the contentious proposal is expected to get final approval in the Senate this week, just days after the state’s legislative session began and after it already received passage in the House.

Republican lawmakers defended the process Monday after the one Democrat on the committee, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, asked to table the bill to provide for more time to study the impacts. Her motion was defeated on a 8-1 vote, and the bill was also passed out of the body by the same tally.

Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, and the Senate sponsor of the bill, countered: “HB261 has been a priority. It hasn’t been rushed through.”

He said there has been time for individuals to weigh in, as well as “extensive floor debate” in the House. Grover also said the language of the bill from Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, has been available “for well over two weeks.” It has not.

The bill was first made viewable to the public late on Jan. 11.

Landward, who currently is serving as interim commissioner after the previous leader in the position unexpectedly stepped down, said in that limited window it’s been hard to assess the full scope of the bill. The wide-sweeping proposal would reframe diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices at the state’s eight public colleges and universities — as well as at public K-12 schools and in any government institution within Utah.

The bill prohibits any offices from engaging in “differential treatment” or preference based on race or gender and bans them from using the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion” in their titles. In higher education, DEI programs would be required to shift to more generalized “student success and support” centers open to everyone.

It is one of the most far-reaching of any such measure across the nation. Landward said it’s a different approach, too, than what’s been seen in other red states that have more clearly outlined what specifically is banned. That’s when he called the measure “untested.”

“It’s impossible to know the challenges that complying with this law will include,” Landward said.

The commissioner also stood behind the success of DEI programs in achieving the main goal of the Utah System of Higher Education: getting students to attend college and complete with either a degree or certificate. He said there are known and proven hurdles that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face — though he did not mention specific communities.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Franzoni-Thorley, center, is embraced by sisters Marilee Coles-Ritchie, left, and Deanne Coles as they join a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jocelyn Akwenye and Owen Brough, 4, join others in a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

Currently, Landward said, one-third of students who graduate from high school in Utah are not pursuing education beyond that. And of those who do, half don’t finish.

“Barriers to higher education exist. The data are unambiguous on this,” he said. “… Interventions in these barriers work. We know they work.”

Landward added that where gaps exist “our institutions are going to intervene. We have to intervene.”

He also added that those working in DEI offices in Utah higher education are “all human beings with real emotions” and urged kindness toward them.

HB261 has been buoyed by Utah’s dominant conservative lawmakers and supported by Gov. Spencer Cox. Meanwhile, the bill has been met with heavy opposition from Democrats, as well as many educators and individuals of color who have spoken out against HB261. On Monday, prior to the committee hearing, there were two separate rallies against the measure.

The first was held at the University of Utah. About 20 students took turns talking about how DEI programs, from LGBTQ+ resource centers to Black cultural centers, have given them a space on campus and helped them navigate higher education.

“This cannot go away,” said Juliet Reynolds, a first-generation college student and single mom.

A second rally was held outside the committee room, with individuals dressed in black carrying signs that said “We rise by lifting others” and “Utah needs more diversity, equity and inclusion. Not less.”

Kyra Peery, a coach and teacher, came with her four young kids. She said all of them “have already experienced racism from the beginning of their school days.” Having DEI offices, Peery added, helped them work through it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People hold a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

More than 150 people packed the hearing and lined up to speak during roughly two hours of comments. The chair of the committee set up public comments to alternate between those for and against the bill and set limits for the same number of people from each side to speak. Riebe challenged that, questioning why they would artificially skew public comments if more had come to speak on one side of the issue. “That’s not proportionately accurate,” the Democrat and educator said. “And that’s not equity.”

Prior to public comment, Riebe had sparred with Hall over the bill in a tense back-and-forth. Riebe questioned why the bill used the term “equal opportunities” instead of “equity” when they “seem like they’re the same.”

Hall said: “It’s an attempt to de-politicize this situation.”

Riebe then responded with a laugh, “Without this bill, this would be less political. That’s a little ironic to me.”

The Democrat also asked whether specific student groups, such as a Black student council or Latinos in Action, could still exist.

Hall said they could, as long as “they don’t exclude people who want to be in their group that aren’t Latino.”

Riebe said that meant that 20 white students could join a group meant to support 10 Latino students.

Hall countered: “I don’t like to speak to hypotheticals.” But, she said, by joining, the club would give the white students “background and insight into a culture.” Hall added that her point is to give all students an opportunity, not to “get rid of” diversity.

Riebe concluded: “I would beg to differ.”

The public comments followed the same pattern. Some said DEI programs create more division and discrimination. Others said they create a level playing field and address racism, including that that contributed to the death by suicide of Izzy Tichenor, a young Black girl in Davis County. Several mentioned the recent New York Times story examining the conservative push behind the measures, and a few suggested Utah’s bill was part of a national effort.

“What’s your fear? Is your fear that underserved people will get resources and thrive?” asked Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, who is Pacific Islander and co-founded the Utah-based nonprofit PIK2AR, which stands for Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources.

On the other side, individuals said it is offensive to suggest that they are disadvantaged because of their race and need handouts.

“I got my degree by working hard and studying hard, not by being Cuban or Latina,” said Gabriela Puckett.

Rod Hall, who is Black, said his parents were the first to integrate white schools in Georgia. “They chose not to teach us that we were oppressed or any less because of the color of our skin,” he said.

Rep. Hall, choking up, challenged the idea that her bill was influenced by anyone outside of Utah. “I know there’s a lot of people who say this is a national agenda,” she said. “… I wouldn’t bring this bill forward if that’s what it was.”

HB261 additionally would ban public colleges, K-12 schools and government offices from asking job applicants for a statement about their beliefs on diversity or inclusion and could lose state funding for violating that. And schools and government offices would be required to eliminate any training on “discriminatory practices” while replacing that with instruction on free speech from all viewpoints.

There are exceptions in the bill for federal requirements and grants around diversity. And in the latest substitute, there’s an additional note exempting the University of Utah’s longstanding agreement with the Ute Tribe from the requirements in the bill.