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Representative Burgess Owens, a Black man wearing a blue suit, and Representative Suzanne Bonamici, a white woman wearing a blue blazer, both speak at microphones.

Representative Burgess Owens (left) and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (right) sparred over diversity, equity and inclusion in a hearing Thursday. 

Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images and Diego G Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During a contentious House hearing Thursday, Democrats batted back attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses, blasting Republican attempts to blame the programs for the rise in campus antisemitism.

In his opening remarks at the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development’s hearing, titled “Divisive, Excessive, Ineffective: The Real Impact of DEI on College Campuses,” Utah Republican Burgess Owens called DEI initiatives “a cancer that resides in the hearts of American academic institutions.”

His Democratic colleagues offered a forceful renunciation of that characterization. Oregon representative Suzanne Bonamici argued that changing demographics and persistent prejudice on college campuses are important reasons to keep such offices in place.

“DEI offices exist to address student needs, to give strategic support to faculty [and] institutional leaders, to identify hurdles and assist faculty and staff in serving, educating and meeting the needs of increasingly diverse populations, many of whom are first-generation college students,” she said.

Both Bonamici and Democratic witness James Murphy, director of career pathways and postsecondary policy at Education Reform Now, sought to dismantle the image of DEI offices that Republicans often project: monolithic units designed to pump antiwhite, anti-Christian, antistraight ideology into a university. Instead, Murphy said, each office brings different benefits to campuses. “At some institutions, DEI offices play a central role, a role demanded by law, in ensuring their college is in compliance with Title VI, Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Murphy said. “What few, if any, DEI offices actually do is provide direct instruction to students, let alone indoctrinate them into any set of beliefs.”

Thursday’s hearing was the first by the subcommittee to tackle DEI head-on, though Republicans have spent much of the past year rallying against such offices and their impact. During recent hearings on antisemitism on college campuses, Republicans blamed the heightened hostility toward Jewish students in large part on the lack of support DEI offices have shown for them.

The hearing came at a time when Republican-led states nationwide are introducing sweeping bills to ban DEI at public colleges. The first two states to enact such bans, Florida and Texas, have seen the widespread closure or rebranding of DEI offices and campus centers that cater to students of color and LGBTQ+ students; many professionals who work in those offices have also been fired or reappointed. And while Republicans have lauded such changes, Democrats and activists worry about how they will limit students’ ability to access resources and support.

The conversation, which also touched on last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban race-based college admissions, underscored the fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about the very nature of DEI.

Republicans and their witnesses trotted out oft-cited criticisms of DEI initiatives, including that they encourage the mentality that every interaction is tinged with racism. They argued that education about bias—which they suggested was unnecessary—is replacing more valuable academic content and that colleges are wasting heaps of money on DEI officers and programs.

Republican witness Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a former associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine and the founder of Do No Harm, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate critical race theory from health-care settings, insisted that medical students now learn more about “colonialism” and “global warming” than actual medical knowledge.

“One medical student recently told my organization, ‘I’ve learned more about pronouns than I have about how the kidney functions.’ Patients should be concerned,” he said.

Bonamici questioned why Republicans felt a hearing on DEI was more important than forums on pressing topics like campus hunger or students’ civil rights. She also criticized as offensive Owens’s decision to compare DEI to cancer—though Owens was quick to point out that he, in fact, had survived prostate cancer.

“So when I equate DEI to cancer, it is the real deal,” he said.

Murphy stressed that DEI offices provide valuable services to more than students of color and LGBTQ+ students; they are often responsible for the well-being of student parents and first-generation students, too.

Representative Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Georgia, lambasted Republicans for using the plight of Israeli civilians killed on Oct. 7—and the ensuing antisemitism Jewish students have experienced on college campuses—for political gain. She argued that the right path toward supporting students is not to eliminate DEI but to improve those offices and ensure they provide support for Jewish students alongside the populations they already serve.

“That cannot come at the cost of dragging us backwards and undoing the important progress we’ve made as a nation,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that Black Americans and students of color have historically been denied access to universities despite being just as qualified and willing to learn as their white peers.”

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