Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives limited at Kentucky colleges under Senate bill

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FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Republican-backed measure to limit diversity, equity and inclusion practices at Kentucky’s public universities won approval from the state Senate on Tuesday after an emotional debate that delved into race relations and what the bill’s sponsor portrayed as the liberal bent on college campuses.

The bill cleared the Senate on a 26-7 vote after a nearly two-hour debate, sending the proposal to the House. The GOP has supermajorities in both chambers. One Democratic lawmaker, predicting a legal challenge, said the final arbiters could be the courts.

Debates revolving around initiatives on diversity, equity and inclusion — known as DEI — are playing out in statehouses across the country. So far this year, GOP lawmakers have proposed about 50 bills in 20 states that would restrict DEI initiatives or require their public disclosure, according to an Associated Press analysis using the bill-tracking software Plural. Meanwhile, Democrats have filed about two dozen bills in 11 states that would require or promote DEI initiatives.

In Kentucky, opponents warned the proposed restrictions on campuses could roll back gains in minority enrollments and stifle campus discussions on topics dealing with past discrimination.

The legislation, among other things, would bar public colleges and universities from providing preferential treatment based on a person’s political ideology. It would prohibit the schools from requiring people to state specific ideologies or beliefs when seeking admission, employment or promotions.

Republican Sen. Mike Wilson said he filed the bill to counter a broader trend in higher education toward denying campus jobs or promotions to faculty refusing to espouse “liberal ideologies fashionable in our public universities.” He said such practices have extended to students and staff as well.

“Diversity of thought should be welcomed in our universities and higher education,” Wilson said. “But we’ve seen a trend across the United States of forcing faculty, in order to remain employed, to formally endorse a set of beliefs that may be contrary to their own, all in violation of the First Amendment.”

Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas said the proposed restrictions would jeopardize successes in expanding the number of minority students on Kentucky’s university campuses.

“The richness of our diversity and our differences, that’s what makes us strong,” said Thomas, who is Black. “We are like a quilt here in America.”

Wilson responded that there’s nothing in the bill to prohibit colleges from supporting diversity initiatives, as long as those efforts don’t include “discriminatory concepts.”

The legislation sets out a host of such concepts that would be prohibited, among them that a person, based on their race or gender, bears responsibility for past actions committed by other members of the same race or gender. Another is meant to keep people from feeling guilt or discomfort solely because of their race or gender.

The state attorney general’s office would be allowed to take legal action to compel a school’s compliance.

Other senators opposing the bill warned that its restrictions could have a chilling effect on what’s taught on college campuses. They pointed to the women’s suffrage movement and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation of public schools as possible examples of topics that could be excluded.

In supporting the bill, GOP Sen. Phillip Wheeler said it’s important for students to delve into the past and learn about the struggles of people. The bill attempts to “get to a balance, to where we’re no longer looked at as the oppressors and the oppressees, that we are each judged on our own merit,” he said.

“I think that some of the vitriol that occurs on the campuses, some of the topics, have really done more to divide us than unite us,” he added.

The Supreme Court’s June decision ending affirmative action at universities has created a new legal landscape around diversity programs in the workplace and civil society.

On Tuesday, one of the most emotional moments of the Kentucky Senate debate came when Republican Sen. Donald Douglas talked about his own life experiences, recalling that some classmates believed he got into medical school because he was a Black athlete, despite his academic achievements.

“You know how embarrassed I was?” Douglas said in supporting the bill. “How embarrassed I was to tell them I had an academic scholarship to medical school and I had to explain, as a Black man, how I got a scholarship to medical school?”

The changes proposed in the bill would be painful for some people, Douglas acknowledged. But he predicted that most affected students will “succeed with vigor and they will succeed with a sense that they are responsible for their success and not just the system.”

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The legislation is Senate Bill 6.

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