Higher education organizations, including some where KU is a member, condemn recent Trump order on ‘divisive concepts’

photo by: Associated Press

President Donald Trump signs an executive order during a news conference at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

An executive order issued by President Donald Trump near the end of September that seeks to end “divisive concepts” and stereotyping based on race and sex in all federally funded programs has caused a stir in recent days among higher education institutions.

The broadly written Sept. 22 “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” states that federal programs that through training or educational programs state that the United States “is fundamentally racist or sexist” or that an individual person “by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” risk losing federal funding.

On Thursday, the American Council on Education — a higher education organization with over 1,700 members, including the University of Kansas — addressed a two-page letter to Trump calling for the order to be rescinded. ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote that the letter was sent on behalf of 54 smaller higher education groups — including the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, both of which KU is a member institution.

“We strongly oppose race and sex stereotyping, which inhibits efforts to build more inclusive workplaces and communities,” Mitchell wrote. “But the timing, content, and discordant tone of your Executive Order is creating concern, confusion, and uncertainty for federal contractors and grant recipients across the country.”

The concern Mitchell mentions has already been demonstrated by at least two higher education institutions since the order was issued. The University of Iowa and John A. Logan College in Illinois interpreted Trump’s order to mean they needed to at least pause activities in their respective Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs.

Iowa’s interim associate vice provost for DEI, Liz Tovar, said in a campus memo that diversity, equity and inclusion were still a core focus of the institution.

“… (However) 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,” Tovar said, according to Inside Higher Ed.

When asked if KU had considered similar actions with its DEI programs, KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said the university would “continue to work with our peers nationally to learn more about the order and determine appropriate next steps” and directed the Journal-World to the ACE statement.

Trump’s order, which mentions Martin Luther King Jr., the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas political rivalry of the 1850s, takes direct aim at the concept that America’s foundation was inherently racist and sexist.

“Many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual,” the order says. “(Such an) ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

Critics have said the order was issued in part due to Trump’s anger about the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” which according to the Times, is a 2019 reporting effort that sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of (the United States’) national narrative” on the 400th anniversary of slavery. Some schools have adopted a “1619 Project” curriculum to teach history from the project’s point of view, which has drawn criticism from those who believe the curriculum is more political indoctrination than educational content.

Summer Lopez, the senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, a nationwide free expression advocacy group, said last Tuesday that Trump’s order was a “disgraceful and politicized effort to shut down public discourse about racism.”

“The implications for higher education and the creative community are grave, but the potential impact is broader than that as well. This is an assault on the essential freedom protected under the First Amendment — not just to speak but to receive information, to debate ideas freely and without fear of punishment, least of all from the government itself,” Lopez said in a statement. “Anything short of that is not democracy. This EO is not just words on paper. It is a danger to our fundamental rights, and it must be revoked immediately.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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