Regents considering policy to prohibit ‘diversity pledges’ at KU, other state universities

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

The Kansas Board of Regents is working on a new policy that will prohibit “diversity pledges” at state universities, but higher education leaders say it won’t require the schools to close their offices related to diversity efforts.

A subcommittee of the Board of Regents, which oversees KU and other public universities in the state, gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a policy addition that says “no state university, on its applications for admission or hiring, reappointing or promoting a faculty member, require statements pledging allegiance to, support for, or opposition to diversity, equity or inclusion.”

The new policy, which will require full board approval next month before it becomes final, is in response to growing concerns among conservative lawmakers that universities are excluding applicants who don’t sufficiently express enthusiasm for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives.

Regents Chair Jon Rolph said he didn’t think that was happening at universities in Kansas, but he wants to assure legislators that the Regents take the issue seriously. The end result is likely to be that universities won’t have as part of their application processes a requirement that potential employees or students make statements about their DEIB beliefs.

Rolph said some applicants who are applying for jobs directly related to DEIB initiatives indeed may be questioned on that front as part of the application process, “but broadly across the university that every applicant needs to provide a statement before they are ever interviewed, it is just not something that we feel we need to do in Kansas.”

Some Kansas lawmakers have proposed that state funding for higher education be cut if universities don’t outlaw such diversity pledges.

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod told the Journal-World in a brief interview that such funding cuts would be “devastating” to KU’s finances. Girod said he felt the new policy would be workable, as long as it doesn’t expand beyond its intent. A key, he said, is the policy won’t prohibit KU from doing on-campus work related to DEIB, which Girod said is absolutely improving student outcomes.

“We don’t want to have to stop doing the work in terms of individual success, which is what it is about at the end of the day,” Girod said.

Both Girod and Rolph said the new policy would not prohibit universities from spending money on diversity and equity issues, which has been a movement in other states.

Rolph said the issue has become a hot-button issue in the world of higher education because of concerns raised by lawmakers in many states. Rolph said there is no question that having employees who value and understand diversity is a “core value” of all the state’s universities.

“But there are people who now believe that when you ask about that on an application that you are trying to weed out conservative voices on campus,” Rolph said.

Rolph said the Regents don’t want any group to feel like they are being “weeded out” from positions and opportunities at the universities. Rolph said he previously didn’t believe a policy was needed to prohibit such diversity pledges because there hasn’t been evidence that the state’s universities are acting inappropriately.

“But now we certainly are willing to look at it because I think it is a good faith gesture to the Legislature to show them we are taking their concerns seriously,” Rolph said.

Rolph stopped short of saying that the new policy, if it becomes final, would stop state lawmakers from approving new bills related to DEIB initiatives in universities. Girod said the most troubling provision currently being considered by the Legislature is a budget proviso introduced in the Senate that would cut about $35 million — or about 5% of state funding for higher education — if universities don’t change some of their DEIB policies.

Rolph did not predict whether the Regents’ actions to approve a new policy would head off that budget cut. Rolph earlier this month had his reappointment to the Regents confirmed by the Kansas Senate, but he faced many questions about DEIB and his position on the role it should play at the state’s universities.

At the February Board of Regents meeting, as the Journal-World reported, Rolph gave a seven-minute speech where he urged legislators to back away from new laws related to DEIB issues, and said he had a hard time understanding the objections of some lawmakers to DEIB initiatives.

“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,” Rolph said in February. “This is not, in my opinion, a zero sum game.”

On Wednesday, Rolph didn’t have any message for legislators, other than that the Regents are taking their concerns seriously.

“There are times that we need to show our partnership and our understanding of what their concerns are,” Rolph told the Journal-World on Wednesday. “This is an opportunity for us to do that.”


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