Utah’s anti-DEI bill passes Senate in last major vote, paving way to overhaul diversity programs in education, government

HB261 will need final approval from the Utah House on amendments before it’s expected to be signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, speaks about HB261 during the legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

Just 10 days into the legislative session, Senate Republicans have taken the last major vote to approve dismantling diversity programs across all of public education and government in Utah — one of the most far-reaching measures in the country.

The full impact of the measure is still not known. But now public colleges, K-12 schools and offices across the state will have to determine what of their efforts violate the measure and then eliminate those.

The Senate voted 23-6, with all Democrats in opposition, on Thursday to pass HB261. It goes back to the House again for final agreement on minor amendments Friday.

[MORE: Visit The Salt Lake Tribune’s bill tracker to search through hundreds of bills by issue or number.]

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has already signaled his support to sign the measure into law. That would put the final bow on the controversial and conservative measure that has been fast-tracked from the start of a legislative session zeroed in on underrepresented communities in the state.

The wide-sweeping proposal requires that diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices at the state’s eight public colleges and universities, specifically, be reframed. They can no longer be race- or gender-based, but instead must cater to all students as generalized “student success and support” centers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People rally against HB261 at the University of Utah on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. A short time later the Senate Education Committee passed the controversial measure on the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government.

That same premise applies to K-12 schools and government offices, which are similarly prohibited from using the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion” in their efforts. No other state that has passed an anti-DEI measure has included as many institutions.

Senate sponsor Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, celebrated the measure with comments before the vote, saying: “All voices will be heard.”

The Senate rules were suspended to pass the bill Thursday. Measures with fiscal impact are typically tabled until later in the session, but the bill, with a $1 million note, was allowed to move forward anyway.

HB261 additionally bans schools and government employers from asking job applicants for a statement about their beliefs on diversity or inclusion and could lose state funding for violating that. And all entities 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.

The bill has been panned by a laundry list of organizations, as well as many individuals of color who have spoken out against it. That includes Equality Utah, Black Lives Matter Utah, the ACLU of Utah, multiple Pacific Islander groups, educator unions and students from every college in the state. The state’s commissioner over higher education also raised questions about the “untested” approach that he said would be “difficult to implement.”

Questions remain on what is or isn’t touched by the broad measure. Grover has acknowledged that it could inadvertently impact Native American tuition waivers across the state, as well as the longstanding agreement where the Ute Indian Tribe has granted the University of Utah permission to use its name and imagery.

“We’re just not sure,” he said earlier this week. “There could be an impact. … The legislation could have that unintended consequence.”

A last-minute substitute was added to protect private scholarships, which appears to be an effort to safeguard at least some of the Native tuition waivers, as long as they don’t use state funding. Universities can support scholarships, based on race then, as long as the money is from donors. The U.’s Native scholarship is currently set up that way.

“That’s not affected,” Grover said Thursday, talking about the amendment.

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

Students from various backgrounds who benefit from DEI have also questioned whether the support they rely on will be erased. That includes offices for students of color, first-generation students, students who are single parents and students with disabilities.

Bill sponsor Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, has said her measure wouldn’t close cultural centers or clubs — but would instead open them to all individuals. She has said, in that way, she believes HB261 fights discrimination based on personal identities.

“DEI has come to mean differential treatment in some cases,” she said during one hearing. “And we want everyone to get the support they need no matter what.”

Democratic lawmakers tried several times to pause the bill for further study, but those efforts were defeated as it was pushed through in eight days.

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Salt Lake City, who is the first ever Chinese American to serve in the Utah Legislature, pleaded in a last push Thursday with her colleagues to vote against the bill.

“I’ve received hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls from constituents who are terrified of having their cultural and ethnic history erased,” she said. “... We must consider that potential harm and reevaluate.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Karen Kwan, D-West Valley City, speaks as HB261 is up for discussion during the legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

She talked about her previous work as an advisor at the University of Utah’s then-called Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. Many of those offices, Kwan said, are “the only safe space” for students from diverse backgrounds.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, compared the demographics of the state with those of students enrolled in higher education in Utah — with minorities far less represented at universities and colleges.

“If Utah’s enrollment is not even close to where it’s needed to be, we’re failing,” she said, choking up. “And this is not the solution.”

One Democratic senator wore a pin with flags for the LGBTQ community. Another had a pin that read, “Utah Students Deserve More.”

All Republicans in the Senate voted in favor of the bill, but none stood to talk in support of it Thursday.