KY college ban on diversity initiatives advances in Senate

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State Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green.

State Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green.

Bud Kraft, Legislative Research Commission.

A bill prohibiting certain diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Kentucky’s public colleges and universities that promote “discriminatory concepts” having to do with racism, sexism and white privilege won approval from a legislative committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 6 from Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, would limit diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices and programs at public colleges and universities.

That includes “non-credit classes, seminars, workshops, trainings and orientations” that promote or espouse such discriminatory concepts as: “race or race scapegoating,” a belief that some individuals are “inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;” any teaching that “promotes division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;” and any teaching that suggests all “Americans are not created equal.”

On Thursday before the Senate Education Committee, Wilson said his bill is to “counter a trend” in public colleges and universities “attempting to exclude in employment . . . scholars or professors that do not conform to liberal ideologies.”

Such “ideology, conformity and viewpoint discrimination has been imposed on staff and students,” Wilson said, before he cited several examples of such instances across the country and one in Kentucky.

Wilson said the University of Louisville “has required DEI statements for applicants seeking positions.” But in an email last month in a response to questions from the Herald-Leader, a UofL spokesperson said, “the university does not require employees or students to sign a DEI statement at the time of hiring or admission.”

The committee approved the bill along party lines. It now moves to the Senate for floor votes.

Wilson’s bill to regulate DEI is one of three so far proposed by Republicans this legislative session. Senate Bill 93, filed by Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, would prevent public K-12 schools, districts and charter schools from promoting, supporting or maintaining any “programs, trainings or activities that advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or promote or engage in political or social activism,” which it calls “divisive concepts.”

Meredith’s bill also proposes doing away with statutory requirements that school mental health counselors take a “trauma-informed approach” when supporting students, because such an approach is a “backdoor” to a “DEI agenda.”

A third anti-DEI bill, House Bill 9 from Rep. Jennifer Decker, seeks to dismantle and defund all DEI offices across the state’s public colleges and universities. In doing so, the bill would eliminate race-based scholarships and end administrative promotion or justification of so-called “discriminatory concepts,” such as white privilege.

It would also bar public higher education institutions from providing any “differential” or “preferential” treatment to a student or employee based on race, religion, sex, color or national origin.

All three bill sponsors have said vaguely referenced instances of discrimination occurring as a result of the policies they’re attempting to restrict, but none have cited incidents specific to Kentucky.

“In recent years, our public universities have been plagued by a new form of discrimination,” Wilson said in an email to constituents soon after he filed SB 6, calling it a “disturbing trend.”

That new form of discrimination, he said, is “driven by ideologies attempting to suppress free speech and ideological diversity, undermine academic freedom and the principle of equal opportunity, devalue academic and professional merits, and reduce the values of diversity to a bureaucratic exercise.”

His bill would stop discrimination “based on a public university student’s or employee’s refusal to support or endorse any particular concept, ideology or political viewpoint.”

The bill also seeks to ban what are often referred to as diversity statements from students or staff, which is when an individual is asked to write a letter or sign a statement affirming their belief and work toward a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment.

Each of the public higher education institutions that responded to questions from the Herald-Leader last month said they do not require such statements to be signed by students or staff.

Rebekah Keith, a student at the University of Kentucky who spoke in favor the bill alongside Wilson at Thursday’s public committee meeting, said she was “screened” in an interview to be a resident adviser her freshman year when she was asked what her pronouns were and where on campus she’d seen “injustice and mistreatment.”

Keith, who described herself as conservative, said she was eventually denied the position because she was told, as a white woman, she couldn’t relate to the experiences of other non-white students.

Keith viewed this as discrimination. She also felt forced to “bend the knee” to what she described as DEI initiatives — looking at experiences of other students through the lens of race, ethnicity sex, and sexuality, and gender identity.

In a feedback interview for the job she didn’t get, a conversation which Keith said she recorded, Keith said she learned, “because I am white presenting, I’d probably not had to think about how I present myself, unlike other white students.”

She also mentioned an incident in a women’s literature class, where her professor informed the class there would be no tolerance for homophobic, transphobic, islamaphobic, or xenophobic, anti-semitic, sexist, ableist, classist language.

“As someone who believes there are only two genders and that men cannot become women, this was problematic to me, so I went to speak with the professor to ensure my First Amendment rights were going to be protected,” Keith said.

Later in the semester, Keith said she defended her belief that people cannot be transgender, and her professor emailed her after to say she “wasn’t recognizing the humanity of the other students,” and that she’d violated UK’s Code of Conduct.

“Actions like these force people to bend the knee ideologically,” Keith said.

On the heels of Keith’s statements, the Herald-Leader is seeking comment from University of Kentucky officials.

Anti-DEI bills like Wilson’s have become a frequent target of conservatives across the country in recent years, whose backers pose arguments similar to Wilson’s: Colleges and universities have cultivated fertile ground for liberal indoctrination, and bills like these are needed to rein them in.

But Kentucky Council for Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson said Thursday this gleaning is a fundamental misunderstanding of what DEI is and the purpose it serves.

“If you have felt discriminated against at our universities, that should’ve never happened,” Thompson said. But “that’s not what DEI is.”

DEI policies are intended to establish equity for underrepresented and marginalized populations in educational settings, he said. Discrimination exists, but that shouldn’t be confused with healthy, sincere debate on a variety of issues.

“To be able to, within that kind of setting, have direct debate, to learn something new, to formulate your own opinions about what the world looks like, that’s what we should stand for, more than anything else,” Thompson said.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who voted against the bill, called it “anti-intellectual.”

“Throughout history, all the way back to slavery, there are periods of advancement and immediate reaction. Some of that reaction comes from hate, some comes from ignorance, some comes from fear and some comes from discomfort. I can’t ascribe that to the author of this bill, because I know him too well, so I’m confused,” he said.

There are already mechanisms in place to deal with instances of discrimination, Neal said.

“When I look at the language of this bill, it does not address the issues you’re talking about,” he said. Instead, it “micromanages” and begins to “create constructs that either suppress or do not ameliorate the situation.”

This story was originally published February 8, 2024, 2:03 PM.

Alex Acquisto covers health and social services for the Lexington Herald-Leader and She joined the newspaper in June 2019 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in Kentucky with support from the Blue Grass Community Foundation. She’s from Owensboro, Ky., and previously worked at the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers in Maine.
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