Utah schools reject Gov. Cox’s claim that they require employees to sign ‘diversity statements’

The governor’s office, meanwhile, points to examples of higher ed jobs that ask applicants to describe their efforts in “contributing to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. The governor alleged the "evil" hiring practice of public university requiring hires to sign a diversity statement was happening in Utah.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox railed this week against what he called “diversity statements you have to sign to get hired” at Utah’s public colleges and universities, alleging those are commonly required for new employees.

But all of the state’s schools say they don’t have statements applicants must sign. And the examples the governor’s office later provided when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune don’t match what Cox initially described.

Cox first drew attention Wednesday, when he spoke about diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities during his monthly televised news conference. The governor said the practice of requiring employees to sign DEI statements during the hiring process at higher education institutions was “bordering on evil.”

“We get professors or employees who have to sign these DEI statements before they can even qualify for a job,” Cox said. “These statements are very political. ... It is happening here in the state of Utah. I can assure you after this legislative session, it will not be happening here in the state of Utah.”

He also added: “We’re forcing people into a political framework before they can even apply for a job with the state.”

Spokespersons for all eight public colleges and universities in the state, though, responded to The Tribune, saying they don’t have institutional statements that candidates must agree to as a condition for hire as Cox described.

When asked for examples, Cox’s office later provided links to job postings for the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College.

In those, candidates are asked to write a statement or answer general questions about their own beliefs about diversity. They are not asked to sign any kind of commitment.

A document asked for as part of an application for a humanities position at Utah Valley University includes “a statement outlining your plans for contributing to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”

UVU spokesperson Scott Trotter acknowledged the position and the requirement, but said it’s not the same as asking a candidate to sign onto a DEI statement outlining tenets that the university wants them to uphold. “UVU employees are not asked or required to sign a diversity pledge,” he said.

Most of the postings specifically note that the question is “open-ended” and could include any position or stance on diversity.

The posting the governor’s office pointed to at Salt Lake Community College states SLCC “seeks to cultivate an environment of respect and empathy, advanced by diverse cultures and perspectives. What does it mean for you to have a commitment to diversity?”

SLCC’s spokesperson said Thursday that the school doesn’t consider that to be the kind of required statement like what Cox described. Peta Owens-Liston acknowledged candidates are often asked about diversity with the intention of “helping students develop skills to work with all different types of people.”

She said applications do include asking about a person’s ability to be able to communicate with and teach people from all backgrounds — including cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic and those differently abled.

In addition to SLCC and UVU, spokespersons for the University of Utah, Southern Utah University, Weber State University, Snow College, Utah Tech University and Utah State University all saiud they don’t require a signed statement on diversity. They sometimes ask for examples on an application about a candidate’s efforts, but do not have anything they have to sign or uphold

Chris Nelson, the spokesperson at the University of Utah, said the state’s flagship university does not require prospective hires to sign a diversity, equity and inclusion statement before they are employed. At the University of Utah, an applicant’s approach to diversity issues may be a consideration in the hiring process, but it is not a formal requirement.

“In caring for our diverse campus community, faculty and staff job postings may ask questions or request materials regarding inclusivity,” Nelson noted in an email.

A search of the U.’s job postings showed some mentions of diversity, but no signed statements.

A post for an assistant or association director of communications asked candidates to provide “a one page statement response to prompt: Please describe your experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion and how this relates to your approach of working in a higher education setting and communicating to both internal and external stakeholders.”

Another listing for an assistant professor of movement in the Theatre Department asks for: ”Evidence of a commitment to engaging in professional development opportunities that build effectiveness in areas of inclusion, intercultural communication, and advancing diversity.”

The U.’s Theatre Department, in particular, has faced criticism multiple times — in 2016, 2020 and 2021 — for a lack of representation in casting. Most recently, the department canceled a production of “Songs for a New World” that includes a character usually played by a Black performer when there were no Black students in the department’s chosen cast. The department promised to improve its diversity efforts moving forward.

Other U. applications included things like asking for a “statement explaining how you will further the goal of building a culturally diverse and inclusive educational environment” or how their research, teaching and mentoring, and/or service activities contribute to the mission of the department, including working with students from diverse backgrounds.”

Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the spokesperson for Gov. Cox, sent a link for a U. assistant professor in engineering for games that asks for a one or two page statement describing the ways a candidate’s “background, experience, and commitments relate to our values and goals.” The application then links to the department’s statement about generally encouraging diversity in gaming and supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“If these aren’t diversity statements, I’m not sure what is,” Napier-Pearce said in an email to The Tribune.

But all of the schools that spoke to The Tribune draw a distinction between asking an applicant about their ideas on diversity and requiring them to sign any kind of statement.

Bryan Magaña, the spokesperson for Weber State University, said the school “does not require employees to sign diversity statements.”

He added: “Prior to this year, a handful of candidates for faculty positions in some departments had been asked to provide their professional experience serving diverse student populations, but were not asked to personally affirm any diversity statements. ... As we further engage with community members and lawmakers, Weber State remains committed to its open enrollment mission, ensuring access to education and success for each student, no matter their age, gender, race, income or any other factor that shapes their experience.”

Several faculty and staff members have also spoken up, saying they were not required to sign a statement.

An associate professor at the U. in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that when he was hired by the school in 2019 he was not asked to submit a diversity statement and he hasn’t been asked to since.

“Jobs that my department advertised since then haven’t included a requirement to submit a diversity statement,” he said.

A former employee at Snow College said: “You do not have to do what the Governor claimed at all. The furthest extent the DEI office goes is approving questions for interviews. ... There are no DEI statements that have to be signed prior to or during the process of becoming an employee there. None.”

Gov. Cox is a Snow College alumnus, as well as a graduate of Utah State University.

USU’s spokesperson said Thursday that the school does not require signed diversity statements, as the governor said, “before they can even qualify for a job,”

“USU seeks to create a culture of respect and environment where everyone feels they can belong,” the university’s spokesperson said. “To that end, Utah State is committed to the freedom of expression.”

Nelson said the U. is open to input from political leaders moving forward on its hiring process.

“We focus our time and energy on finding the very best workforce that will help us become a top ten public university with unsurpassed societal impact,” the U. spokesperson said. “The university welcomes guidance and direction from state leaders as we seek to provide equal opportunity and help people fulfill their potential.”

It is expected that there will be several bills restricting the work and reach of diversity offices on public college campuses during the upcoming legislative session that starts on Jan. 16; those offices were targeted toward the end of last year’s session, but the bill was pulled at the last minute when the sponsor said it was “too harsh.”

Cox said earlier this month that he feels those offices have become divisive and to expect changes.

The governor also announced changes last month for college campuses on free speech — including limitations for students and requirements for administrations to remain neutral on political issues.