Bill restricting DEI returns to Kansas Legislature amid debate over ideology, pronouns

photo by: Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

Rep. Steven Howe said a bill limiting DEI practices at Kansas colleges and universities is necessary.

TOPEKA — Rep. Steven Howe, chairman of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, pointed to job applications at Kansas State University and other Kansas public universities to argue the necessity of legislation restricting diversity, equity and inclusion practices.

Howe, a Salina Republican who requested the bill’s introduction, said he initiated DEI debate in the last legislative session after hearing public discussion about DEI on college campuses and conducting his own research.

“What we’ve seen across the United States is universities becoming more lopsided in terms of the types of people that are in positions,” Howe said. “They might be more politically minded in a certain viewpoint. You might not have a diversity of intellectual thought on a campus because you’ve kind of weeded out people that may not share in a certain ideology.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion is commonly understood as an organizational framework that seeks to give voices to historically underrepresented groups.The diversity aspect is meant to acknowledge differences such as race, gender, sexual identity and culture. Equity is about correcting systemic imbalance and offering everyone equal opportunities. Inclusion is about supporting and valuing all people and making sure they feel valued within a system, as InclusionHub defines it.

Republicans on a national and local level had sounded the alarm about DEI. In Kansas, legislative Republicans tried to ban state universities from asking faculty members, students and contractors about diversity, equity and inclusion during the last legislative session.

On Wednesday, Howe showed committee members a Kansas State University job application for an assistant professor position, which required a statement of diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the application. He said requirements such as these tended to “discriminate against people who might not adhere to their orthodoxy.”

House Bill 2460 would prohibit public colleges and universities from including DEI as a provision for admission, financial aid or employment decisions. These decisions could not factor in candidates’ support or opposition to “any political ideology or movement, including a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism or related topics.”

The bill also authorizes candidates who feel these rights have been violated to take legal action. If the institution is found to have violated these rights, they will be fined a $100,000 administrative penalty per incident.

The model legislation comes from The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a national nonprofit organization.

During Wednesday’s discussion, Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said he was concerned by the bill’s ambiguity, as well as the provision opening up the state’s public universities, colleges, community colleges and technical schools to legal action.

“Imagine, for example, that a job applicant makes an unsolicited, unprompted expression on a covered subject in application materials or during an interview, such as a belief against the American dream or the American way of life,” Flanders said in written testimony. “If the applicant is not hired and sues under the bill, litigating such factually intensive claims as whether the university’s decision was ‘based on’ the unsolicited statement could be time consuming and expensive.”

Nathan Madden, an impact strategist with the Health Forward Foundation, also spoke against the bill, saying it would create a chilling effect for Kansas’ health care industry by repelling diverse applicants who wish to study health sciences in welcoming environments.

Madden also warned that the legislation could worsen Kansas health care by reducing diversity and cultural competency in the field. He brought up the state’s high maternal mortality rates for Black mothers as one area where DEI training is needed. In 2019, Black women were more than twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes in Kansas as in Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado, and recent studies have shown this racial disparity has only grown.

“This bill has real teeth,” Madden said.

Sarah Green, a University of Kansas student, spoke in support of the bill during the committee hearing. She said she was required to take DEI training at her student job and believed this requirement to be an infringement on her right to free speech. She cited having to use people’s preferred pronouns as one portion of the training.

“I was required to acknowledge that I need more DEI training and education and in addition to that I’m required to use inclusive language,” Green said. “This can include swapping out ladies and gentleman for folks, including people’s pronouns in my email signature, in my syllabus.”

At times, the discussion veered away from education. Rep. Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg, went on a tangent about his own background and how he didn’t approve of equity practices.

“I have a son that married a Mexican and a son that married a Vietnamese,” Smith said. “I have three nieces and nephews that are gay. So I feel like I come from a diverse background … I worked harder than anybody in high school athletically. I worked harder than anybody. I couldn’t beat my Black friends. Why? They were just better than me. I don’t believe in equity. They were just better than me. Didn’t matter how hard I worked, they were gonna outrun me and they were just better athletes than I was.”

— Rachel Mipro reports for Kansas Reflector.


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