Utah proposal to revamp diversity, equity, inclusion programming gets committee support

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, left, and Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, on Wednesday at the Utah Capitol. They crafted HB261, which would dramatically rethink diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Utah universities.

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, left, and Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, on Wednesday at the Utah Capitol. They crafted HB261, which would dramatically rethink diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Utah universities. (Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The proposal that would revamp equity, diversity and inclusion programs in Utah's universities has received a favorable recommendation from the Utah House Education Committee.

Now the controversial measure — which drew fierce support and opposition from a stream of speakers before Wednesday's vote — moves to the House for consideration.

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, the sponsor of HB261 and an education committee member, said she hopes the measure sends the message that there's "equality of opportunity" for all students in the state.

Critics have expressed concern that the measure would be a step backward in efforts to fight discrimination. But Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Toquerville, another backer and committee member, said he read the measure's text "and there is not a word in this bill that adds to discrimination. ... The bill protects everybody."

The measure, with some changes, received a positive recommendation in a 12-2 vote at Wednesday's committee meeting. Voting "no" were the two Democratic members of the committee, Reps. Carol Spackman Moss and Angela Romero, both of Salt Lake City.

As a University of Utah student, Romero, who is Hispanic, said she benefitted from the offerings of the university's Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, which is geared to students of color. Initiatives like HB261, though, send a different message to students of color, she worries.

"They feel like people are erasing them and who they are," Romero said.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, the measure generated a strong outpouring from both supporters and opponents.

Cari Bartholomew of Path Forward Utah expressed support, alluding to the intent of the measure to create programming for students at Utah's public universities based only on need, not race, ethnicity, gender identity or other "personal identity characteristics." Path Forward Utah advocates for "diverse communities" via a conservative lens.

"My whole message is a person should be seen as an individual," Bartholomew said.

Likewise, she expressed aversion to the notion that simply because one is African American, he or she needs assistance. "How insulting," said Bartholomew, who described herself as Black and biracial.

Hoang Nguyen, chief executive officer of Dragonfly Wellness, a medical cannabis pharmacy in Salt Lake City, spoke in support of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, broadly speaking, which benefitted her family. She and the rest of her family are originally from Vietnam.

"We credit (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts for leveling the playing field," she said, thus allowing her and her family's business ventures to succeed. Until society reaches the "utopia world" in which racism no longer exists, she went on, youth who think the color of their skin is the first thing others notice need protection.

Lawmakers wasted no time in launching a debate on HB261, co-sponsored by Hall and Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo. It went before the education committee for debate on just the second day of the 2024 legislative session, which started on Tuesday.

"Considering big policy issues at the beginning of the session when things are less busy allows for more robust debate and in-depth consideration," Hall told KSL.com on Tuesday.

Foes and critics, likewise, quickly put out the call for the public to sound off at the hearing. The measure was publicly unveiled just last Thursday.

HB261 would dramatically overhaul diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Utah's public universities, among other things. Proponents say such programming aims, in part, to help African-American students, and others from groups that have historically faced marginalization, thrive in the university setting. Foes, though, view such programming as discriminatory because it isn't all-inclusive, and HB261 says assistance would have to be provided "without consideration of an individual's personal identity characteristics."

What are traditionally dubbed diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities would become "student success and support" offices or divisions, per HB261, open to all students regardless of race, ethnicity and other personal identifiers.

Darlene McDonald, an HB261 critic, has been parsing the bill's wording and says some university programming geared to certain minority students wouldn't necessarily be impacted by the measure. She runs 1 Utah Project, which promotes civic engagement in the Black, Indigenous and people of color community.

The U.'s American Indian Resource Center, part of the university's equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, would not be impacted because it's funded with federal money, she said. Likewise, the Dream Center, which provides assistance to undocumented students, wouldn't be impacted because it offers help based on a student's immigration status, not their "personal identity characteristics."

However, programming geared to Black students — the U.'s Black Cultural Center, for instance — would be subject to elimination, McDonald said. She's a former Democratic U.S. House hopeful and advocates for the Black community and other people of color.

What's more, her reading of HB261 indicates diversity, equity and inclusion programs operated through the state and local governments in Utah would be subject to elimination or overhaul. Specifically, she pointed to the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.

HB261 would also prohibit universities and other public employers in Utah from requiring "diversity statements" of job applicants. Those are statements employers sometimes seek asking for an applicant's thoughts on diversity and equity issues. The measure also aims to enhance "academic freedom" on college campuses, giving all sorts of student voices free reign in a university setting.

Though it's controversial, Hall said she's been getting positive feedback on the bill.

"I've gotten great support from colleagues and leadership and have received support for the positive and collaborative approach we've taken in helping all of Utah's students," she said. "Utah is leading the way with positive solutions to pressing issues."

After facing committee scrutiny, HB261, if passed along, would then face review by the full House and full Senate.

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Multicultural UtahUtah LegislatureUtah governmentPoliticsUtahEducation
Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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