Southern Utah University students worry anti-DEI rules will fuel extremists, hate crimes

SUU and the state’s other seven public colleges and universities have until July 1 to comply with a new Utah law.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students mingle at the Q Center at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

Cedar City • In response to the state’s controversial new anti-DEI rules, Southern Utah University officials are taking steps to ensure they are fully compliant with the law.

SUU and the state’s other seven public colleges and universities have until July 1 to comply with HB261, the controversial bill the GOP-dominated state Legislature passed during its last session and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law.

Among other things, HB261 requires the state’s higher-education institutions, K-12 schools and government offices to remove the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion” from the titles of offices. It further mandates such institutions or centers open diversity efforts to everyone, regardless of their race, gender or ethnic background.

Moreover, it bars employers at such institutions from requiring staff or job applicants to sign “diversity statements” as a precondition for hire — a practice Cox has decried as “bordering on evil.” Utah universities have countered they don’t practice in the way the governor has alleged.

Whatever the law requires, SUU officials say they intend to meet the deadline while continuing campus-wide efforts to support students and help them succeed.

“Southern Utah University is currently reviewing the new legislation and working closely with USHE to understand the requirements of the bills which become law on July 1, 2024,” SUU spokeswoman Nikki Koontz said in an email. “We have created a task force of key stakeholders on campus that will assess and implement any necessary changes once we receive guidance from USHE.”

SUU’s announcement comes after Utah Valley University scrapped the words “diversity” and “inclusion” from the title of its office for underrepresented students and renamed the center the Office of Institutional Engagement and Effectiveness. The Orem university’s action made it the first school in the state to remove the DEI words now banned under the new legislation.

The Cedar City university’s statement closely parallels Utah Tech University’s announcement earlier this month that it was forming a “committee of stakeholders on campus” to review the legislation and ensure compliance by the July 1 deadline.

One possible change SUU might have to make to abide by the new rules is to eliminate or, more likely, rename its Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which provides services and advice to students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities. It also helps LGBTQ, Black and other students on campus stage events and access other educational resources.

For his part, center coordinator Landry Igiraneza doesn’t know what changes might come and refused to speculate.

“We haven’t received any guidance,” he said. “Without that guidance, we don’t know what might happen or what is going to change.”

Lost spaces

The looming uncertainty was especially unsettling to LGBTQ students at the Q Center, which is located across the hall from Igiraneza’s office in the Sharwan Smith Student Center.

“The anti-DEI rules are concerning because they specifically target safe places in schools and universities that are meant to protect marginalized folks such as LGBTQ students and people of color,” said Dante Grilli, secretary of the Pride and Equality Club. “Where can a Hispanic trans, queer person like me go if these safe places go away? Who will be responsible if I, my friends or someone I know becomes a victim of a violent crime?”

Keilani Deccio, a Black member of the school’s LGBTQ community, said the Center for Inclusion and Diversity has been invaluable in helping her connect with other students from diverse backgrounds. Even if state lawmakers say HB261 is not intended to target anyone, the sophomore added, extremists will be encouraged by the language of the bill and “run with it” in their efforts to hurt or discriminate against others.

“These spaces are places that I can express myself openly without being seen as a political talking point or seen as odd because of who I am,” Deccio added. “Why can’t people like me be allowed to exist? My people have been fighting to exist in America for a long time.”

While Igiraneza and others are still awaiting guidance, school officials and students in the DEI-related centers on campus are trying to be proactive in complying with the new rules, such as avoiding the mere mention of the words “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Zadok Jackson, a freshman aviation major who is white, called HB261 a “horrible bill” that encourages sexism, racism and homophobia.

“Utah is such a blind, homophobic and horrible state,” he said.

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