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A photo illustration combining snippets of bills from Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Utah and Wyoming and a map of the U.S. highlighting those states.

This year has seen a new wave of legislation targeting diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. 

Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | The state legislatures of Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Utah and Wyoming

Despite vocal opposition from faculty members and racial justice groups, Indiana’s Republican governor signed legislation Wednesday diminishing diversity, equity and inclusion programs and tenure protections in public colleges and universities while simultaneously promoting, as the new law puts it, “intellectual diversity.”

In a failed scramble to stop Senate Bill 202, an Indiana coalition called the University Alliance for Racial Justice said that, while it opposed the threatened “loss of tenure” and other ramifications faculty members had decried, “what is most egregious about the bill is the fact that such sanctions would be imposed as a consequence for speaking about discrimination and racism in higher education classes in the state of Indiana [emphasis in original].”

Despite the outcry, it passed. The Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis was among about 70 groups that signed the petition opposing the bill. In a new statement Thursday on the bill becoming law, David Greene Sr., a Black pastor and president of the group, said that “in what it targets—diversity, equity, and inclusion—and who it targets—Black university faculty—[the law] is clearly racist.”

It’s not the only anti-DEI bill that’s reached or neared the finish line in the last couple of weeks. In Alabama, despite student protests on multiple campuses and denouncement from the mayor of Birmingham, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 129 last week. Like the Indiana bill, it threatens both DEI and academic freedom; free expression advocacy groups say it could stop public university professors from teaching about certain so-called “divisive concepts,” such as the idea that meritocracy is racist, even in a critical way. The bill awaits the Senate’s agreement to House amendments before heading to the GOP governor’s desk.

Florida has continued to pass anti-DEI legislation on top of its 2022 Stop WOKE Act. Last week, the state legislature passed House Bill 1291, which now just needs Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s signature to become law. It says colleges’ K-12 teacher preparation programs can’t instruct these future educators “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent” in U.S. institutions and were created to maintain inequities.

Out west in late January, Republican Utah governor Spencer Cox signed House Bill 261, a wide-ranging anti-DEI law. And, last week, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported that the Wyoming House of Representatives agreed to the state Senate’s budget proposal to defund the University of Wyoming’s DEI office and any other DEI activities—in exchange for the Senate dropping its proposal to eliminate the university’s gender studies program. Wyoming’s governor has yet to sign or veto.

“That is five states with really bad bills,” said Jeremy Young, the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, a free speech group. He said they’ve flown under the national radar because, unlike the anti-DEI laws in Florida and Texas last year, they weren’t accompanied by a “media blitz.”

“None of these were pet projects of a governor who was about to run for president,” Young said. But collectively, he said, they could be more detrimental than last year’s legislation. He’s called the Alabama bill “the most restrictive educational gag order in the country” affecting higher education.

Opponents have said this year’s bills will roll back efforts to promote diversity in higher education. In Indiana, the NAACP Indiana Conference, the Indianapolis Urban League and other groups signed a statement Thursday in which they expressed “deep disappointment in our elected leaders who, faced with the clear discriminatory implications … still chose to impose a bill on the citizens of Indiana that we have no choice but to call out as racist.”

The statement affirms the importance of free speech, but says “the heavy handed and indisputably racist approach of [the law] must be recognized as an ineffectual and ultimately corrosive means for creating change. Any possible gains that might accrue from this legislation pale in comparison to the damage it will most certainly cause to Indiana’s citizens of color, its civil rights climate, and its traditions.”

“This is just extra work for a Black person to defend themselves about what they may or may not have said” in a classroom, Greene told Inside Higher Ed. “White people have always had the privilege of talking and sharing their viewpoint,” he said.

“It’s going to have a terrible impact on the Black community in Indiana,” Greene added. “I would challenge anybody to tell me: What good’s going to come out of it for Black people?”

Anti-Diversity, Couched as Diversity?

Spencer Deery, the Republican Indiana state senator who was lead author of the new law, says it’s neither racist nor an assault on academic freedom. He wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed Thursday that “Indiana data shows the two groups least likely to be able to express themselves in higher education are African Americans and political conservatives. Both facts should concern us.”

He said he “crafted a measured bill that would not mandate or prohibit any content, and that would create no interruption to the important ongoing efforts to recruit and retain minority students in higher education. An honest reading of the law shows this is a very different bill than what’s been attempted in other states.” He further said “we need a vocabulary to identify and condemn racism and when everything becomes ‘racist,’ that condemnation becomes less meaningful.”

Mark A. Russell, director of advocacy for the Indianapolis Urban League, strongly disagrees. He said the law “basically chills free expression. Now this is something that, here in Indiana, we have a particularly odious history of doing at the political level.” Russell invoked the state’s history of segregation in education and the Ku Klux Klan’s control of Indiana politics in the 1920s.

He called the law a “mask” for promoting conservative viewpoints. “It seems like this legislation is hellbent and driven to take facts away from intellectual discussion,” he said.

What would Deery’s law actually do? It requires campus boards of trustees to pass policies to deny faculty members promotions and tenure if—“based on past performance or other determination” by the board itself—they are “unlikely to foster … intellectual diversity,” “unlikely to expose students to scholarly works” from various “political or ideological frameworks” applicable to their discipline, or likely to “subject students to political or ideological views and opinions” that are “unrelated” to their discipline or the course.

Additionally, fostering “intellectual diversity” and the related requirements will be considered in post-tenure reviews, which the law will mandate at least every five years. Indiana didn’t have a statewide requirement for post-tenure review until now. Professors could be punished, up to losing tenure and being fired, for failing to meet the criteria.

Further, colleges and universities will have to consider fostering “intellectual diversity” and the related criteria when deciding whether to give bonuses or renew faculty members’ contracts. That means the law will impact nontenured faculty members, too.

The law does more. It establishes a process for students and employees to complain that professors aren’t meeting the criteria, mandates reporting of the complaints to the state legislature and requires universities to submit their DEI expense information to lawmakers.

In an emailed statement to Inside Higher Ed after signing the bill, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb wrote that “I have consistently supported and encouraged diversity, inclusivity and respect for all. SB202 establishes a foundation at our publicly funded universities to ensure freedom of expression for students and faculty.” Holcomb added, “I have faith in our public universities to faithfully implement this law to foster the successful growth and intellectual vibrancy of academia while protecting the rights of all individuals.”

“It’s racist, how’s that,” Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Multifaith Alliance, said of the bill. He’s one of the signatories of Thursday’s statement condemning the new law.

“The Black community has said this is racist, I don’t get to decide that,” Spiegel said. But neither do white legislators, he said: “When the Black community says this is racist, then it is.”

He further said the mechanism to report professors’ teaching, and the fact that those complaints eventually extend to people outside of the university itself, is “fascist.”

“It’s an anti-DEI bill couched in an attempt to expand diversity,” Spiegel said. “What’s hidden in there is what, to me, is an obvious attempt to repeat what Florida has done: A national movement to first disassemble diversity, equity and inclusion to prevent the teaching of tough history lessons from the United States, and to minimize people of color.”

Whatever this law and other anti-DEI legislation says on paper, said Leslie Etienne, assistant professor and director of Africana studies at Indiana University at Indianapolis, “the intentions are clear.” He said he doesn’t think anyone “is confused about it,” and that he would respect the law’s writers more if they would just state their intentions.

“The national rhetoric around what’s being targeted—this isn’t a singular situation just to Indiana,” Etienne said.

Not Playing Ball

Having not succeeded in stopping anti-DEI laws from passing, civil rights groups may be switching up their strategy in the second half.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was already involved in the litigation that has so far stopped Florida’s Stop WOKE Act from affecting the state’s public universities. Thursday’s statement from the groups opposing Indiana’s new law pointed to a new move by the NAACP regarding Florida. In an open letter Monday, the NAACP urged Black athletes to reconsider their plans to attend or continue competing at Florida’s predominantly white colleges and universities. “This is not about politics. It’s about the protection of our community, the progression of our culture, and most of all, it’s about your education, and your future,” the NAACP wrote.

“Football, in particular, is more than a game—it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry, with most revenue earned off the backs of Black student-athletes,” the NAACP wrote. “At UF [University of Florida] and similar institutions, if football stadiums emptied, if merchandise stopped selling, if TV deals fell through, the monetary loss would extend beyond athletics to other university programs.”

Black athletes must be treated as “whole, empowered beings, not merely as performers for an audience,” the NAACP said.

In Alabama, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin, speaking out against the legislation there, has said he has “no problem organizing Black parents and athletes to attend other institutions outside of the state where diversity and inclusion are prioritized.”

Thursday’s statement from the groups in Indiana, home of the NCAA, says that “in a state recognized for its dedication to college athletics, it goes without saying that a similar letter from the national NAACP to Black athletes counseling them to avoid Indiana would be catastrophic.”

Spiegel said he’ll ask the NAACP to write a similar letter for Indiana. The NAACP didn’t return Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment this week.

Whatever happens next regarding the law—lawsuits, letters or continued protest—the Indiana organizations have said they “will not cease in our efforts” until it is overturned.

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