Chair of Kansas Board of Regents expresses concern about proposals to limit DEIB programs at universities

photo by: Chris Conde

Strong Hall Directory pictured here on Jan. 19, 2022, on the first floor of Strong Hall at the University of Kansas.

The chair of the Kansas Board of Regents said Wednesday that he wants university employees across the state to know the Regents are closely watching efforts by state lawmakers to potentially limit diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

And he wants state legislators to know he hopes they will work with university leaders rather than passing new laws on DEIB issues.

“Legislative action must be reserved as the final step and not the first step in any meaningful change.” Regents Chair Jon Rolph said at the Regents’ monthly meeting.

His comments, which came in the form of about seven minutes of prepared remarks at the beginning of the meeting, come as state lawmakers are working on one bill, while many higher education leaders believe another bill may be coming that would significantly limit how much universities can spend on DEIB programs.

The first bill, HB 2460, would prohibit universities from making any decisions about admitting students or hiring employees based on their support or opposition to statements regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism or related topics.

Rolph noted that Kansas’ higher education system, unlike some other states, is facing challenges in having enough students rather than having universities at or over capacity. But he said that fact seemingly is doing little to ease the concerns of some lawmakers.

“It appears there is significant controversy in the Legislature, and I have trouble understanding the objections,” Rolph said. “I can only assume there are those who hold to a belief that if you are doing something to advantage one group you are taking something away from another. This is not, in my opinion, a zero sum game.”

The proposed law also would create a penalty provision that would require the Kansas treasurer to impose a $100,000 administrative penalty on any university that has violated the provisions of the law. The $100,000 penalty could be imposed for each and every violation by a university. The law also would allow the Kansas attorney general to file a lawsuit stopping any university from implementing any policy believed to be in violation of the law.

Rolph said he wanted university employees to know that he — and, he believes, many of the state’s higher education leaders — support DEIB programs.

“The people in this room work every day trying to create dynamic learning environments where belonging is the foundation,” Rolph said.

A second bill related to limiting the spending that universities can undertake on DEIB programs hasn’t yet emerged, but state auditors are expected to release a report next week that details spending levels by universities on DEIB programs. There’s a belief that report may spark a bill that would limit the ability of universities to spend dollars on those programs.

Rolph urged legislators to shy away from that approach, which has been taking hold in other states.

“Reductions in funding particularly related to DEIB programs and services for students will impact the lives of real people,” Rolph said.

Rolph’s comments come at a time when higher education has much at stake with the Legislature. Gov. Laura Kelly has recommended a sizable budget for higher education funding, but legislators have not yet approved that budget, which university leaders are heavily counting on. Notably, Rolph’s comments — which he characterized as his personal comments rather than an official statement on behalf of the board — didn’t spark any further discussion among the other Regents nor the university leaders who were present at the meeting.

Rolph said members of the Board of Regents and its staff remained engaged in dialogue with state lawmakers to try to address any concerns being raised.


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