Utah bill may threaten Ute Tribe’s agreement with the U., Native tuition waivers

The Senate sponsor of HB261 says “we’re just not sure” of the full impacts of the fast-tracked measure.

Update: A last-minute substitute was added on Jan. 25 to protect private scholarships, as long as they don’t use state funding, which could protect some Native tuition waivers. The story has been updated to reflect that.

College tuition waivers for hundreds of Utah tribal students are in jeopardy as an “unintended consequence” of lawmakers’ drive to reduce diversity initiatives in higher education.

The Senate sponsor of the bill acknowledged to The Salt Lake Tribune this week that he hadn’t previously considered that possible effect of HB261. But he said, based on the language of the measure, those supports for Indigenous students could be “potentially impacted.”

“That’s a good question,” said Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo. “And we’re just not sure. There could be an impact. … The legislation could have that unintended consequence.”

Over the last two years, universities across the state have announced tuition waivers and scholarships for any student who is an enrolled member of one of Utah’s eight sovereign tribal nations. It’s been part of a growing effort to support Native students here, who remain the smallest demographic for enrollment in higher education in Utah.

The University of Utah was the first to announce, in July 2022, its move to cover tuition and fees for Utah tribal students to attend. At the time, U. President Taylor Randall called it “a vital part” of the school’s mission.

HB261 would prohibit specific race- or gender-based scholarships, along with other rollbacks on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs. There is some debate about whether a tribal student could still qualify for tuition waivers as a member of a sovereign nation — rather than by race — though the bill’s language does not expressly say that.

Grover updated the measure before the final Senate vote Thursday to allow for privately-funded scholarships to continue. Universities can support scholarships, based on race then, as long as the money is from donors and not state funds. The U.’s Native scholarship is currently set up that way.

But not all of the institutions in the state that offer those Native tuition waivers fund those privately.

The U. also has a longstanding agreement with the Ute Indian Tribe — which is also the namesake for the state — for the school to use the “Utes” name and imagery; the university provides scholarships and support for tribal members in return. Grover amended HB261 to include a mention of that memorandum.

But the bill only protects the current version of that, with the text saying it applies to the “terms of an agreement entered into between the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe before July 1, 2024.” The agreement expires every five years and is renegotiated. The memorandum in place now is set to expire in 2025.

Grover acknowledged that the bill does not cover future agreements with the tribe.

“When they enter into another MOU (memorandum of understanding), they’d just have to see if there’s any crossover with this bill,” he said.

A spokesperson for the U. said that wasn’t the school’s understanding when administrators spoke to lawmakers to include the provision. Now, the university says, “the impact on future MOUs is ‘to be determined.’”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ute Indian Tribe Chairman Julius T. Murray III in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

Ute Tribe Chairman Julius T. Murray III said he’s frustrated by what he sees as the state trying to meddle in “an agreement between a sovereign government and a school.” He said he intends to keep the MOU with the U., as long as “it’s beneficial to us.”

“We’re willing to fight that fight if it comes to it,” he said.

Forrest Cuch, a former education director for the Ute Indian Tribe, said he sees the legislation as walking back decades of work by the tribe — and other tribes in the state — to have their students succeed and find a place in higher education.

“I’m very disgusted with the Legislature for trying to turn the clock back to the 19th century and before,” Cuch said. “They think they’re doing some good, and they’re not. They’re destroying the wonderful relationships that have developed over the years with the tribes.”

When asked if the legislation could lead to fewer Native students attending college, Cuch said: “Of course it will.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Forrest Cuch is pictued on Monday, March 21, 2022.

After the U. announced its tuition offer for tribal students, Southern Utah University, Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College all followed suit with matching offers last year. That means four of the state’s eight public colleges cover tuition for enrolled members of state tribes; and the other four all offer at least partial scholarships for Native students.

Across the schools with the full tuition coverage, there are 853 Native American students, according to state enrollment data for fall 2023. Not all of those students may be enrolled in a tribe in the state, but it’s likely that many of them are.

Utah State University, alone, accounts for roughly half of the total, with 408 Indigenous students. At the U. there are 128 Native students out of the 33,000 students total. But of those, for this fall, 66 students qualified for the scholarship — which covers anything left after other grants and awards — and 47 received it. And of those, one was a Ute student.

Still, that means hundreds of Native students at the state’s schools could be impacted by HB261, and those tuition waivers and scholarships could become against the law, depending on how they are funded, when the bill passes.

And it’s expected to. The fast-tracked measure passed in the first of two required votes on the Senate floor Wednesday — just nine days into the legislative session — with a 23-6 tally, with all six Democrats in the body voting against. Every Republican lawmaker supported the measure. A final Senate vote matched that tally Thursday, and it goes to the House next to concur with minor amendments.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has indicated his support for it, too.

The House has already approved the measure from Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden. Hall did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Ute Chairman Murray said Thursday that he feels the Legislature failed to consider the specific impact on and harm to Native students. With the treaties between tribes and the federal government, he said, “Certain things were promised and education was one.”

The bill bans any kind of “differential treatment” based on race, ethnicity or gender across public higher education in the state. That includes reframing diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices into generalized “student success and support” centers open to anyone.

The bill also includes a ban on specific race- or gender-based scholarships. Tribal members are a race. But they are also part of a sovereign government.

The spokesperson for the U. said it’s possible that universities would be able to continue tribal scholarships by categorizing Native students as members of sovereign nations, rather than designated by their race.

Grover acknowledged that and said that sovereignty makes tribes “akin to like a federal government entity.” The bill includes exemptions for federal requirements around diversity, but the language doesn’t include anything about sovereign nations.

The senator said he might consider amendments before final passage for “some oversights, some things we’re not considering.” Murray, too, said tribes should be viewed “not as races but as political entities.”

Grover also said Native students already are “going to have federal benefits coming their way, and they’re going to have need-based scholarships and grants,” so he suggested he didn’t know how large of an impact losing the tuition waivers would have.

The bill currently says that universities and colleges in the state — as well as K-12 schools and government officers, which are also included in the language — are tasked with spending the next year looking at how their work is affected. The state, Grover said, will reassess when it hears back on those reports.

He said on the Senate floor Wednesday: “If there’s programs we’re not quite sure about, this bill doesn’t say we need to abolish immediately.”

Harold “Chuck” Foster, who is Navajo (Diné) and the American Indian specialist for the Utah Board of Education, said he’s concerned by the direction of HB261 and what he sees as the lack of thought about Native students.

“The bridge has been built,” he said. “I’m wondering why they want to tear down the bridge now.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Harold "Chuck" Foster, the American Indian specialist at the Utah State Board of Education, Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

He said the U. has since an increase in recent years in Native students attending, and he said three Indigenous students are currently in the medical school there. Things like tuition waivers, he said, “have really helped,” particularly when many Native kids live hours away from most campuses in the state and are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college.

Foster worries the bill will be a setback for many Indigenous students, and he urged lawmakers to talk to tribal leaders. Cuch, who graduated from Westminster University, agreed.

“They forget their history. They forget that they’re immigrants to this country,” he said. “Our ancestors were here first. If that disrupts their narrative, too bad. … I think they need to go back and get educated on the history of the state. And they need to have a dialogue with people of color.”

The U. spokesperson said discussions with lawmakers would continue about concerns. The school specifically said, “The University of Utah has a unique relationship with the Ute Tribe.”

The university has had a formal agreement with the tribe since 1972. In exchange for allowing the school’s athletics department to use its name and the drum and feather logo, the school provides annual financial support to the tribe for K-12 education on the reservation in northeastern Utah. And it holds awareness events on campus about Native American culture and history.

The U. specifically launched the Ute Proud program to showcase those traditions during football and basketball games and gymnastics meets. During those events, members talk about their history and perform before attendees. They also teach fans about inappropriate behaviors — such as wearing sacred regalia or red face paint — that dishonor the tribe and other Native American groups.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Members of the Ute Tribe during halftime of the Ute Proud football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023.