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No More ‘Divisive Concepts’ in Iowa?

Trump's diversity training ban died at the federal level but is finding new life -- in Iowa.

March 18, 2021
 

President Biden killed a controversial Trump-era executive order banning “divisive concepts” in federally funded diversity training upon taking office. Now Iowa legislators are seeking to revive the ban within their state.

They’ve made some significant progress: Senate File 478, as the legislation is known, passed the Iowa Senate this month, with yes votes from all 33 Republicans present and four from Democrats. The bill is now pending before Iowa’s House Judiciary Committee. Separately, this week, the Iowa House passed a similar version of the legislation, House File 802, along party lines. Republicans control both houses of the Iowa General Assembly.

With very similar language to the Trump order, the Iowa bills prohibit race and sex “stereotyping” and “divisive concepts” in diversity training. Such ideas are that one race or sex is “inherently superior” to another, that the state of Iowa is “fundamentally” racist or sexist, and that a person, by virtue of race or sex, is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Other prohibited concepts: that a person, based on race or sex, “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” and that anyone should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” for similar reasons. Meritocracy and “traits such as a hard work ethic” cannot be described as racist or sexist under the bill.

The bills apply to public colleges’ and universities’ staff or student training, led by employees or contractors. Institutions may continue training that fosters a “respectful” workplace or learning environment for all.

Trump’s executive order caused the University of Iowa to temporarily halt its diversity training programs this fall. The university’s interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Liz Tovar, wrote in a campus memo at the time that “diversity, equity and inclusion remain as core values within our institution.” However, she said, after “consulting with multiple entities, and given the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order, which include the loss of federal funding, we are recommending that all units temporarily pause for a two-week period.”

The university resumed diversity training in October, following a review. Jeneane Beck, a spokesperson, said this week that the university “remains steadfast in its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. That includes exchanging diverse ideas and concepts, embedding DEI into the core fabric of our institution and providing a welcoming environment where perspectives can be shared without fear of retribution.”

Regarding the new legislation, Beck said the university provides DEI training “in support of its core values and is fully engaged in the debate” regarding the bills, among others.

Already this year in Iowa, Republicans have floated bills seeking to track university employees’ political affiliations and end tenure. Those don’t have the momentum of the diversity training legislation.

Claire Celsi, an Iowa Senate Democrat who voted against that house's diversity training bill, said she did so because it was fundamentally a “Trump executive order” that would limit diversity training topics such as white privilege and white fragility. Celsi also said groups with whom she shares priorities, including the NAACP and One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy group, opposed it.

Republican senator Amy Sinclair, that bill’s sponsor, said last week during a Senate debate over whether the bill would chill speech, “I would challenge you that it’s going to do the exact opposite,” according to The Gazette. “Because the chilling effect has already occurred.”

‘In Complete Conflict’

A separate section of the Senate's diversity training bill seeks to bolster free speech rights -- including those for political speech -- on campus. It says that faculty members may be disciplined, up to termination, if they’re found to have “knowingly and intentionally” restricted protected speech or otherwise penalized a student in violation of that section of the bill.

That the bill seeks to limit what diversity experts can say and simultaneously boost free speech rights is contradictory to some Iowans, including Loren Glass, professor of English at the University of Iowa and president of its American Association of University Professors chapter.

“They’re actually in complete conflict,” said Glass of the two parts of the Senate bill. “There’s the free speech rights on campus. Then there’s the executive order, which is, in my opinion, an illegal restriction on free speech and academic freedom. So it’s unclear how that’s going to pan out.”

Whatever happens, Glass said he doesn’t plan on changing the way he teaches anything that might come up in his classroom. But he said that the bill could damage diversity training and otherwise “chill” the inclusion and equity work to which the university has committed itself. That includes recruitment efforts for students, faculty members and administrators.

“Here we are, trying to recruit minority faculty and trying to recruit minority students,” he said. “But why would they want to come here? It creates a really inhospitable environment for recruiting and puts horrible pressures on people doing our diversity work, who don’t have tenure, right? They’re staff.”

Saying that untenured professors may be similarly pressured, Glass added, “Now they have to worry about being scrutinized by the Legislature. Even if this bill doesn't pass, they have to worry about that.”

Ascher Brock, spokesperson for the Iowa’s Board of Regents, said that members are monitoring the Senate's “free speech bill,” now before the House.

The Iowa House debated the merits of including diversity training prohibitions in a pro-campus speech last month and decided to drop most of the “divisive concepts” language.

Representative Christina Bohannan, a Democrat and professor of law at the University of Iowa, reportedly said at the time, “I don’t think that has any place in a free speech bill. It’s kind of ironic.”

Representative Sandy Salmon, a Republican, argued that there still “needs to be a paragraph in there about requiring a public institution of higher education to attempt to remain neutral on current public policy controversies.”

The diversity training prohibitions were revived as separate House legislation.

Some lawmakers, inside Iowa and out, have long objected to topics such as white fragility and white privilege being taught at public universities. Two Wisconsin Republicans threatened to withhold funding from the University of Wisconsin at Madison over a course called The Problem of Whiteness in 2016, for instance. The university defended the course and the professor teaching it. The Trump administration heightened criticism of critical race theory, pushing for what it called "patriotic education." Many historians condemned the work of the now-defunct Presidential Advisory 1776 Commission as gravely unacademic.

Campus Speech in Iowa

Iowa has seen a few campus speech issues close to home this academic year, contributing to the flurry of Republican-backed bills about ideological diversity and tenure.

David Johnsen, dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics, last month apologized to state lawmakers for having spoken out against Trump’s diversity training order in a college email chain, and for scheduling a disciplinary hearing for a student who challenged the college's position in that same email chain.

”We do not want any of our students to have an experience that leaves them feeling unsupported or fearful,” Johnsen testified last month during a House Government Oversight Committee hearing on the alleged suppression of conservative student voices. The dental student’s hearing on professional behavior was previously canceled after he contacted state lawmakers, according to the Des Moines Register.

In a separate incident at Iowa State University, conservative groups objected to an English professor’s syllabus that included a "GIANT WARNING" against intentional “othering,” such as “racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, sorophobia, transphobia, classism, mocking of mental health issues, body shaming, etc.” The professor warned that this was grounds for dismissal from the classroom.

“The same goes for any papers/projects,” the professor, who was teaching class on communications, also said. “You cannot choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn't deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc). I take this seriously.”

Iowa State told CNN in August that it is “committed to a learning environment where ideas and perspectives can be freely expressed and debated. The syllabus as originally written did not comply with the university's policies or values.” Corrective action on the syllabus was taken immediately, the university said, and faculty members provided “guidance on First Amendment protections for student expression in the classroom.”

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