Gov. Cox criticizes diversity efforts at Utah colleges, calls them more divisive than unifying

The remarks follow a new policy requiring all public institutions in Utah to draft resolutions committing to neutrality on political issues.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a press conference on free speech on college campuses in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. Cox said in a recent town hall that more changes to college campuses' diversity efforts could happen soon.

Utah officials are pursuing more policies to reform diversity efforts at higher education institutions in the state, Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday night during an online town hall.

Answering a question from an anonymous Utahn — “What are the government initiatives encouraging diversity around business schools and employers?” — the governor, who is running for reelection in 2024, said he believes diversity programs on college campuses have become divisive.

“I am worried about some of the things that are happening on our college campuses,” Cox said to dozens of viewers who joined him on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and X.

He continued, “I am worried that some of those diversity programs on our college campuses aren’t doing what they set out to do, and that is to make more opportunities available for people in our state who haven’t traditionally had those opportunities. I think they’ve gotten very political and I think they’re doing more to divide us than to bring us together.”

Cox’s remarks come ten days after he joined the Utah Board of Higher Education to announce a new policy requiring all public colleges in the state to draft resolutions outlining protections — and limitations — for free speech for students and community members, as well as a commitment to neutrality for each institution and its leaders.

The added rules coincided with protests that erupted at the University of Utah over multiple issues, including some in support of Palestine and others over a documentary criticizing policies that allow transgender youth to seek gender-affirming treatment that was scheduled to be shown on campus by a conservative group.

The university ultimately ended up pulling its sponsorship of MECHA, a student group that was established in California in the 1960s to advance the civil rights of Mexican Americans. Some of the student members at the University of Utah were criminally charged for their actions while protesting the documentary.

During Tuesday’s town hall, Cox said “I very much believe in the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.,” citing a quote from the civil rights leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech — that people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“This idea that we can build together as communities, that we are stronger when we come together, not when we divide ourselves, but when we actually come together to support each other,” Cox said, continuing, “Those are the things that matter, and we’re doing better at that in some areas in Utah. We have a ways to go in others.”

King’s children have on multiple occasions criticized conservative politicians’ use of that quote to target diversity efforts in schools.

In 2021, Bernice King told MSNBC, “He also said, if a nation has done something against the people for hundreds of years, then it must also turn around and do something for those people.”

With the 2024 legislative session just over a month away, Cox said Utahns can expect to see more changes around diversity programs at the state’s public institutions.

“You’re going to be hearing more from me about this over the coming months as we work with higher education especially to make sure that we get those programs right, because I don’t feel like they’re headed in the right direction,” Cox said. “I feel like they’re much more divisive right now than they are unifying, and we are a pluralistic society.”

Clarification The Tribune updated this story on Dec. 14 at 5:45 p.m. to clarify that members of MECHA were criminally charged for their actions while protesting.