These 2 Utah universities are eliminating all cultural centers — going beyond the state’s anti-DEI requirements

The University of Utah and Weber State University are making extensive changes under HB261.

Black students will no longer have a dedicated center at the University of Utah where they can go for support or to talk about experiencing racism with someone who’s been through the same.

Women, too, will also lose their space at the flagship school that was devoted to their unique challenges, such as coping in the aftermath of a sex assault (which women are disproportionately more affected by). And those in the LGBTQ+ community — many of whom have described their center at the U. as their only safe spot on campus — will see theirs eliminated, as well.

The U. announced late last week that all three centers will be disbanded as the university reorganizes to comply with the state’s anti-DEI law.

It’s the second public school in the state — following Weber State University — to take such a hardline, far-reaching approach to the new conservative-backed requirements around limiting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in education. Both universities are taking action to eliminate cultural programs beyond what the state’s new law mandates.

That law, HB261, passed in the most recent legislative session and was signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. It takes effect in a week, on July 1, and schools are expected to outline how they will realign their programs.

Colleges and universities were explicitly allowed to keep cultural centers open, according to the law, as long as the centers were open to students from all backgrounds and focused on education instead of providing resources. For instance, there could be a Black cultural center, as long as white students could also attend events there. A women’s center could continue to operate if male students could also seek information there.

They could not stay open if they were going to provide academic advising.

It’s part of the measure’s charge to the state’s eight public colleges and universities to make sure all students are offered the same access. Schools have been instructed to create new generalized “student success and support” centers that help all those enrolled — not based on specific identities. And administrations are supposed to eliminate the words “diversity, equity and inclusion” from all office and staff titles.

The law also applies to K-12 schools and government offices. All are additionally prohibited from asking for job applicants to provide a statement about their diversity beliefs or training employees about certain diversity topics.

Even though the law didn’t require the U. to disband its Black Cultural Center, Women’s Resource Center and LGBT Resource Center, U. President Taylor Randall told lawmakers last month that his school was using the framework of the bill “to refocus efforts across our institution.”

During the same meeting, Weber State President Brad Mortensen similarly said he wanted to take “a little more aggressive” approach with HB261.

Here’s a breakdown of what will change at both of the institutions.

The University of Utah

During the debate over HB261, the U. was under the microscope. As the flagship institution, many Republican lawmakers looked there for examples of DEI programming they didn’t like.

That context helps explain, at least in part, why the U. is now shifting its efforts.

The school said in an announcement detailing the changes being made that it will eliminate the overarching Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which was the umbrella for the smaller cultural programs, as well as the Center for Equity and Student Belonging and the three other centers (for women, Black students and the LGBTQ+ community).

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and community leaders gather at the University of Utah for an event put on by the Division of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

The resources will be shifted to a new Community and Cultural Engagement Center that will focus generally on “cultural education, celebration, engagement and awareness,” according to the news release.

The U. will also have a Center for Student Access and Resources that offers support on scholarships, for instance, for all students.

While neither of those centers will offer the same individualized, identity-centric services as before, some of what was being offered with the previous resources for Black or female students will now be housed there, the school said. The centers will need final approval from the Utah Board of Higher Education.

Staff will also be shifted to new positions in those offices, the U. said, with new job descriptions.

Randall told lawmakers — and the school reiterated in its statement last week — that no staff positions have been eliminated. The president said, as of May, five staff members had decided to leave the school over the changes, but none were fired. He added that those positions will not be refilled and that will give the school an additional $500,000 in its budget.

The guidance document on the measure from the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the eight public schools, similarly advised that eliminating positions was not necessary under the legislation.

Mary Ann Villarreal, who had been hired at the U. as the vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion, will remain on the president’s cabinet as an advisor, Randall said, but she will no longer have that title or the same work duties. Instead, he said, Villarreal will shift to community-focused engagement.

Meanwhile, the university will keep a specific Native-focused center. The American Indian Resource Center will be renamed the Center for Native Excellence and Tribal Engagement. That office is crucial to the U.’s longstanding agreement with the Ute Tribe where the school gets to use the Utes name in its athletic programs in exchange for supporting Indigenous students.

During the legislative session, HB261 was updated to specifically exempt Native students’ supports and scholarships from being targeted by the measure; under the language, tribes are not considered racial identity groups because they are sovereign nations.

Similarly, the U.’s Dream Center will remain open because it’s based on immigration status, not ethnicity.

The U. will continue to celebrate Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Jr. Week, Pride Week, Women’s Week and other cultural heritage months.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sheena Hathorne, alongside her daughter, Makyla, 10, join University of Utah students and members of the community on the 2014 march from East High School to Kingsbury Hall in honor of MLK day.

“As we’ve evaluated how best to comply with the legislation,” U. Vice President Lori McDonald said in a statement, “we’ve faced very difficult decisions. … This isn’t about changing the words we use; we’re changing how we approach the work.”

Moving forward, the school said, the building on upper campus that had housed the Black Cultural Center will be transformed into a general community gathering space.

The other centers closing posted somber messages on their Instagram pages following the announcements. The LGBT Resource Center noted it has been on campus for 21 years, the Women’s Resource Center for 53 years and the Center for Equity and Belonging (under several names) for 52 years.

Each is hosting an event this week to say farewell and “grieve the end of this era as we welcome in the new,” according to the LGBT Resource Center.

Many students and alumni filled the comment sections for each post with cheerful memories alongside frustrations at the changes.

One incoming student wrote about the LGBTQ+ center: “I’m starting school in the fall and am so upset this won’t be a resource for our community.”

An alum added: “Very upset to hear this news. The space was a key part of my university experience and early adulthood.”

Weber State University

Weber State is eliminating even more centers. Those are the dedicated and separate campus centers that had existed for the following student groups: Black, female, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, Latino, Pan-Asian and undocumented.

“We’re going to repurpose all of our identity-based cultural centers,” President Brad Mortensen said. “We’re not going to have anything — a center, a space, a position — that has a title based on identity.”

Most of the changes at Weber State, which sits in northern Utah’s Ogden, were decided and announced at the end of April. Mortensen said that was because he wanted staff and students to be able to weigh in while they were still on campus before the summer break.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Mortensen speaks at his inauguration as the president of Weber State University in Ogden on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

Like the U., the school will move forward with one generalized student success and engagement office; Mortensen said the exact name hasn’t been decided yet.

At that center, there will be coaches available to all students to help them navigate the university from financial aid to required classes.

Mortensen also said the previous position for vice president of equity and inclusion at Weber State will be shifted to overseeing the new student success division.

Weber State, which does sit in an area of the state with a growing Latino population, has been pushing to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution. That’s a federal designation that requires 25% of a school’s student body to be Latino; qualifying institutions get additional funding.

Mortensen said the school still intends to work toward that, but “without offering [that community] any advantages or services that aren’t offered to all students.”

Weber State will also keep its center for students and families that are “military-affiliated.” It used to be focused only on veterans but was expanded prior to HB261 to any students or spouses of someone in the military.

The school will additionally retain its center for students with disabilities.

Other Utah schools

The other six colleges and universities across the state have released some limited details about the changes being made in accordance with HB261. More information is expected after the July 1 deadline.

So far, Utah Valley University announced it would strip the words “inclusion” and “diversity” from its campus office for underrepresented students. It is now the Office of Institutional Engagement and Effectiveness.

Utah Tech University and Southern Utah University are both poised to disband their LGBTQ+ student centers.

Utah State University has outlined some changes in administrative titles and reorganization of student groups. It will open a new Center for the Study of Community for cultural celebrations and engagement. The school said it intends to keep its Latinx Cultural Center and its in-the-works Native American Cultural Center.