Changing job titles and renaming a center: How Utah Tech University is trying to conform to anti-DEI rules

What happens to Utah Tech’s senior diversity and inclusion officer?

(Utah Tech University) Utah Tech students with the Center for Inclusion and Belonging operate a booth on campus.

St. George • With just under four months to comply with anti-DEI legislation state lawmakers passed and Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in January, Utah Tech University officials are taking steps to ensure they meet the deadline.

Among other provisions, HB 261 requires Utah’s public colleges and universities to remove the words “diversity, equity and inclusion” from programs and to open up race- or gender-based initiatives and resources to everyone on campus. The state’s higher-education officials have until July 1 to comply with the new rules.

In a statement released this week, university officials announced their intent to meet the deadline.

“Utah Tech University is working to fully understand H.B. 261 and the necessary steps we need to take to implement it by July 1, 2024, as outlined in the bill,” the statement reads. “We are in the process of assembling a committee of key stakeholders on campus to review the fine details of this legislation and ensure Utah Tech will be in full compliance with the law. … As part of our mission, Utah Tech remains committed to supporting all our students as they work to achieve their educational goals.”

Still, university administrators and students say there is a fair amount of angst and uncertainty over what the bill means, its impact on the university and what the institution must do to avoid running afoul of the law.

Name changes and staff reductions?

For example, what will happen to Utah Tech’s senior diversity and inclusion officer, a position currently filled by Tasha Toy, an assistant vice president at the university? Another possible issue is the university’s Center for Inclusion and Belonging, which is open to all students but focuses on providing scholarships and services to students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities.

Is a new name in the offing for the center? Will the university have to ax some or all DEI-related positions? University officials are not sure but don’t think wholesale changes are likely.

“At this time, we don’t anticipate any reductions in staffing,” said Stacy Schmidt, UTU assistant director of public relations, “however, job descriptions and titles may shift.”

Whatever changes are necessary, university officials are reassured that the committee — which will consist of five or six members with varying academic backgrounds — has some time to better understand and comply with the legislation.

For his part, Del Beatty, UTU’s vice president of student affairs, said Utah Tech is already in a good position to meet the deadline, noting the Center for Inclusion and Belonging (CIB) used to be called the Multicultural and Diversity Center. If another name change is required, Beatty added, that is for the committee to decide.

The same goes for taxpayer-funded scholarships and tuition waivers, especially those based on student’s race, ethnicity or gender identity. Such scholarships, along with other resources, must be open to everyone, according to HB 261.

What won’t change, Beatty added, is the university’s commitment to attend to the needs of all its students. He noted the programs at CIB are already open to all students.

“As a student affairs professional, my focus has always been in helping the students to be engaged and connected at the institution …,” he said. “What I understand from the intent of the bill is that it wants to ensure we are providing services to all students.”

Cultural War clash?

In his support for HB 261, Gov. Cox characterized DEI programs at Utah’s colleges and universities as fostering division rather than inclusion. He and Republican state lawmakers insist the programs are rife with identity politics and philosophies aimed at politicizing the classroom and indoctrinating students. The anti-DEI legislation, they argue, will ensure that all students are treated equally.

Others are far less sanguine about the anti-DEI legislation, noting it parallels a slew of culture war-type bills passed by Republicans in red states across the nation.

“At one point, Utah was about promoting inclusion and diversity but now it feels like we are taking a major step backwards,” said senior biology major Evelyn Fuentes, the recipient of a Multicultural Inclusion Student Association (MISA) scholarship.

“The Center for Inclusion and Belonging introduced me to MISA scholarships, which allowed me to continue my studies and stay out of debt,” said Fuentes, the first in her family to attend college. “It has been life-changing for me, especially as a first-generation student and a Hispanic.”

Amira Hassan, whose mother is white and her father hails from Pakistan, grew up in Germany before moving to Utah. The junior finance major fell in love with Utah Tech after touring the campus several years ago. But when she enrolled at the university, she often felt like a “fish out of water.” It was the CIB, its empathetic staff and programs that gave her a sense of belonging, put her on a path to success and convinced her to stay rather than transfer to another larger university where she had been accepted.

Today, Hassan is president of the Multicultural Inclusion Student Association. An optimist by nature, she is worried Utah legislators are targeting students from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities through their anti-DEI measures and frets about the future.

Like Utah Tech administrators, she also is struggling to comply with the new legislation. For example, she and others recently changed the name of an event slated for Black History Month from the “Black Excellence Gala” to a “Night of Excellence.”

“It’s sad,” she said, “because taking the word ‘Black’ out of an event name can insinuate that being Black is bad or that ‘Black’ is a stigmatized word, which it shouldn’t be. I’m scared the resources we have had in the past will be taken away and we will no longer have a space where we are allowed to be open and feel comfortable about our different cultural identities.”