Bill to study diversity, equity and inclusion at Utah higher education stalls in committee

Photo of the Utah State Capitol Building, where two pieces of legislation targeting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are being proposed. Neither of the bills are expected to pass this legislation session, which ends Friday, March 3rd. (Marissa Lundeen)

Senator John Johnson of North Ogden proposed a bill to study diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, which is currently stalled in the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

SB283, previously named Prohibiting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, has been adjusted to be a Study of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education after the original bill received concern from various legislators, community members and businesses after its introduction to the Senate on Feb. 27.

In its initial form, SB283 would have prohibited the funding or maintenance of diversity, equity and inclusion offices or officers in the system of colleges and universities. In its current revised form, the bill would require the Education Interim Committee to conduct a study of diversity, education and inclusion in the system of higher education.

Senator Johnson, SB283’s sponsor, said the primary goal of public universities must be to provide a rigorous academic environment where students can explore different ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Senator Johnson said many stakeholders he has spoken with are worried diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within public universities may prioritize promoting particular political or social ideologies over academic rigor and intellectual diversity.

“I want to ensure public universities remain bastions of academic freedom and integrity, free from ideological coercion,” Johnson said. “I hope to promote a more inclusive and diverse academic environment that respects the individual rights and freedoms of all students and faculty.”

Recognizing this is a complex issue, Johnson said he has decided to work on the bill more during the interim and that he is committed to continuing to have thoughtful and open conversations with stakeholders to refine this legislation to best serve the interested of all Utahns.

The updated bill was sent to the rules committee on March 1 where, according to Representative Johnson’s office, it is unlikely to come out. If not, SB283 will not enter committee again for further discussion and voting this legislative session.

SB283 is one of two bills targeting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives this legislative session. HB451, sponsored by Representative Katy Hall, aims to restrict language about DEI in determining employment, admission, or other benefits. HB451 failed in the Senate on Feb. 27 and returned to the rules committee the following day.

Utah Tech Leads CEO Sunny Washington released a statement via Twitter against the original draft of SB283 on the Feb. 27. Utah Tech Leads is a political action committee focused on connecting the Utah tech industry with the Utah State Legislature to ensure that laws and policies are favorable to the interests of tech.

Washington credited diversity, equity and inclusion practices with the production of better products and services.

“In a continued tight labor market, tech companies want to be able to attract and hire from the best candidate pool,” Washington said. “SB283 actively prohibits these institutions from engaging diverse communities, women, and minorities and negatively impacts our hiring pipeline.”

Washington said the first draft of SB283 was not only anti-diversity but also anti-business, and urged legislators to oppose this bill and other anti-diversity legislation saying it is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do for Utah’s economy.

Utah House Democrats also released a statement urging legislators to reconsider anti-diversity bills and said diversity, equity and inclusion are essential components of a healthy society and are needful in order for communities of color to feel safe, supported and valued.

Sandra Hollins, a House representative representing Salt Lake, is Utah’s first and currently only African-American legislator. Speaking against SB283 on the Feb. 24, Hollins said her phone has been flooded by community members asking her what is going on with the legislation surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” Hollins said. “It seems like we keep taking two steps forward and going five steps back … There is an effort to get rid of diversity in schools, to get rid of inclusion in schools, and I don’t know what to say to them anymore,” Hollins said.

Neither SB283 nor HB451 are expected to pass this legislative session. Utah’s legislative session will end this Friday, March 3.

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