Gov. Cox signs Utah anti-DEI bill prohibiting diversity efforts he once championed

The approval from the governor is a marked shift to the right for him after he previously signed — and encouraged others to sign — the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion when he took office.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Cox has signed off on HB261, the bill that unravels diversity programs in education and government across the state.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed off on Utah’s anti-DEI bill Tuesday, setting in motion a far-reaching rollback of diversity efforts across all of public education and government in the state.

Utah is now the latest in a string of red states to pass similar measures into law. And while his approval of HB261 was largely anticipated — the Republican governor has been vocal on the issue in the past few months — it does mark a shift further to the right for Cox.

“We’ve been concerned about some DEI programs and policies, particularly with hiring practices, and this bill offers a balanced solution,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Cox started his term in office in January 2021 by signing onto the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. At the time, he also encouraged his staff to put their names on the agreement pledging to call out discrimination.

Now, with his signature on HB261, the state’s public colleges, universities, K-12 schools and government offices will have to remove the same words that appear in the compact, “diversity, equity and inclusion,” from their program names and open any specific race- or gender-based efforts to all individuals.

As employers, those institutions will also be forbidden from similarly encouraging their staff to sign onto any kind of statement — like the compact —about diversity. They cannot ask applicants about their beliefs about DEI as part of the hiring process, a practice that Cox recently described as “bordering on evil” for higher education.

Cox announced he’d signed the bill at the same time as he did HB257 — the other piece of major legislation passed quickly this session — which bars transgender Utahns from using bathrooms and locker rooms in government buildings.

The governor insisted both bills are about protecting “all” Utahns.

On the DEI measure, Cox said Utah’s approach is different from other states in that it doesn’t outright ban or defund programs but instead makes resources available to all students.

“I’m grateful to the Legislature for not following the lead of other states that simply eliminated DEI funding with no alternative path for students who may be struggling,” he said in his statement. “Instead, this funding will be repurposed to help all Utah students succeed regardless of their background.”

In the fall, Cox started to question diversity efforts at the state’s eight public colleges and universities — following the latest in the culture wars that have been the focus of Republicans across the country. His focus comes, too, as his first term as governor wraps up and while he seeks re-election for the top spot this year.

He pushed first for a resolution with the Utah System of Higher Education for university leaders to remain neutral on political issues (which resulted in those administrators remaining quiet on HB261 during the session). Following that, during a December town hall, Cox said higher education DEI programs are “doing more to divide us than to bring us together.”

A week later, he drew attention for railing against “these diversity statements you have to sign to get hired” at schools in the state. All of Utah’s public colleges said they didn’t have those in the way the governor described, though some said they’ve previously asked applicants to describe their own beliefs on diversity in open-ended questions.

Cox had welcomed the bill to rein in anything along those lines.

“I can assure you after this legislative session, it will not be happening here in the state of Utah,” he said.

The bill was fast-tracked, passing with unanimous support from the state’s predominant Republican lawmakers in both the Utah House and Senate — and unanimous disapproval from all Democratic state lawmakers — with the final vote 11 days into the session.

Senate Democrats issued a joint statement Tuesday saying that HB261 will be responsible for “erasing the progress we have made in building a more inclusive society” — and they worry about unintended consequences.

State Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who is running against Cox in the gubernatorial race, said: “Extreme, divisive, and unnecessary legislation. Is this who we are?”

Many educators and individuals of color had also spoken out against the bill, saying it was harmful and would undo years of work to level the playing field for those who face disadvantages; some held letter-writing campaigns to urge the governor to veto HB261. 1Utah Project, which had pushed against the bill, said Tuesday it “puts politics ahead of student success” and are now planning a possible legal challenge. The commissioner over higher education for the state called the measure “untested” and “difficult to implement.”

It moves forward, though, with the governor’s signature on Day 15 of the 45-day session. With Cox’s approval, it becomes law and is set to take effect on July 1.

Institutions that violate the provisions could have their state funding withheld.

Many of the prohibitions in HB261 are things Cox has previously heralded with his staff in the governor’s office.

HB261, for instance, prohibits certain diversity trainings. Cox has previously asked his staff to complete such workshops on empathy, race and “the intersectional Utah story” — and the senior leaders in his cabinet went through a 21-day equity, opportunity and inclusion curriculum when he first took office.

Cox also hired the first-ever senior advisor for equity and opportunity in the governor’s office. It’s unclear what will happen now with that position, according to the governor’s spokesperson, based on the provisions of HB261 for government officers.

He pushed during his campaign for governor, alongside his wife Abby, to have more female voices in politics and in his administration. But then he said this past December that higher education should focus on getting more men to graduate because they have “dropped off a cliff” in finishing college. Statewide data does not support that, showing that the enrollment of men has remained fairly consistent over time.

And he faced heated pushback in April 2021 for supporting Utah Jazz-sponsored scholarships for minority students. HB261 prohibits Utah colleges from using public funding to support any race- or gender-specific academic awards.

His statement Tuesday briefly acknowledged that his “administration has worked very intentionally with many community stakeholders to expand opportunities for all Utahns and we will continue to do so.”