Frustrated U. of Utah faculty say state’s anti-DEI measure is already having a ‘chilling effect’

President Taylor Randall said the bill does not ‘change the values’ of the University of Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Taylor Randall pictured on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Randall took heat on Monday, Feb. 6, 2024, during a U. Academic Senate meeting where faculty members said they felt the president didn't do enough to push back on HB261, the anti-DEI bill, this legislative session.

University of Utah faculty vented their frustrations Monday over the state’s rollback of diversity efforts across public education — with one professor saying it’s “planting the flag of hatred” and another suggesting the school’s president should have done more to fight the legislation.

“I want to say how disappointed I am at the university and administration for not openly stating, prior to the bill being there, that this university was against this,” said Patrick Tripeny, a longtime professor in the U.’s School of Architecture.

The comments are some of the first to be made publicly by higher education faculty in Utah since the bill was signed into law last week and signal that those working in academia here — particularly at the state’s flagship institution — have deep-seated concerns about the impact of the measure.

“You have a bunch of faculty panicking,” added Patrick Panos, a professor in the U.’s College of Social Work. “This is our research, this is what we teach, this is what we stand for. And we’re not getting a lot of guidance from the university on what this [bill] means.”

The faculty directed their heat at U. President Taylor Randall, who fielded questions during the university’s monthly meeting of the Academic Senate. Randall’s responses also marked the first time the leader had spoken ad lib on HB261.

The bill requires the state’s eight public colleges and universities to reframe their diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices — prohibiting those terms and requiring support be offered for all students outside of race- or gender-based designations.

Randall said that restructuring requirement was “one thing in the bill that was nonnegotiable.”

The president also said he understands the worries of the faculty, and he assured that HB261 does “not change the values of this institution.” It will require some “re-organization” when it takes effect in July. But he also said staff would not be losing their jobs, including in the school’s central DEI offices.

“My hope is that we can find a positive way through this,” Randall said.

Professors in the Academic Senate, though, said they wished Randall had been more public in pushing back against the bill. Randall had spoken out last year when a similar measure was first proposed, saying the “disparities are real” with students of color in higher education and DEI programs were necessary to address the gaps. The legislation didn’t pass then but was reshaped into the bill that did get approved by Republican state lawmakers this year.

Randall did not speak out publicly at any legislative hearing this time. No university president in the state did after new rules were passed in the fall requiring university and college leaders here to remain neutral on political issues.

Tripeny said he understands that rule may have left Randall feeling like he couldn’t speak out on the measure. But the professor said it was the place of the university administration to talk openly about the harms of an anti-DEI aim.

“In my 28 years here, this university has stood up against what I would consider incredibly conservative views in this state,” Tripeny continued. That doesn’t always change how the Legislature acts, he added, but it lets the public know what the University of Utah stands for. He said he knows few faculty members who would support the measure.

“I think we needed to say, from the very beginning, that the University of Utah believes in DEI,” he said, “we believe in our offices of DEI, it’s a part of who we are and what we do.”

Randall paused before responding to Tripeny. The president then told the professor he “can appreciate the strength of what you’re feeling on this.” But Randall said just because he wasn’t visibly seen pushing against the bill, doesn’t mean he wasn’t working behind the scenes to shape it.

“We were engaged at every step defending what we felt are consistent with your beliefs and the beliefs of the faculty,” Randall said.

The president said he had worked with lawmakers to “get a compromise to continue to hold our value of being an inclusive and diverse institution.”

Randall and the other senior leaders of the university put out a statement with that message last week, as did Utah State University.

On Monday, professor Sarang Joshi, who works in computing and engineering, pressured Randall on whether the U.’s official mission statement — which specifically mentions the school’s commitment to diversity — would have to change due to the new law. Randall said it would not.

But he acknowledged the full impact of the measure is not known, and the university will study that over the coming weeks. There will be listening sessions to come.

“It’s close to impossible to understand all of the impact on campus,” Randall said. “We don’t understand each circumstance.”

The president assured that federal grants and accreditation standards for programs wouldn’t be affected under the bill. But faculty questions on how the measure could have a “chilling effect” on hiring faculty, recruiting students and publishing research, Randall said, the “effect is up to them,” as a university to try to correct.

“People are now afraid to use the word diversity, even in their writing,” noted Pinar Bayrak-Toydemir, a professor in the School of Medicine.

“There’s a lot of concern,” said professor Carol Sansone in the Department of Psychology. “It’s not just who’s in our classes, but it fundamentally informs a lot of what we do.”

David Turok, a professor in the U.’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said his speciality, in particular, has been concerned with what the Utah Legislature has done for the past couple of years, including the intended restrictions on abortion. Now, with the anti-DEI bill, he said, they are “planting the flag of hatred” in the state.

He echoed Randall in saying it’s up to the university to control its image moving forward — and it must get out in front, he said. “We’re not going to be judged by what the Legislature does,” he suggested, “but we’re going to be judged by our reaction to it.”