Changes to University of Utah's diversity policies coming into focus; potential impact still unclear

Some details of planned changes at the University of Utah stemming from HB261 are coming to light. In this Jan. 8 photo, a student walks on the U. campus in Salt Lake City.

Some details of planned changes at the University of Utah stemming from HB261 are coming to light. In this Jan. 8 photo, a student walks on the U. campus in Salt Lake City. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some changes to the University of Utah's equity, diversity and inclusion policies, required by a new law, are gradually coming into focus.

Yet to be seen is the impact these changes will have. HB261 was the focus of heated partisan debate among Utah lawmakers, with changes required by the legislation to take effect July 1.

While there is still some deliberation, work is advancing and the U. has started offering glimpses of what's to come. Updates released thus far by the university Wednesday include the following:

  • Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion — head of the office focused on diversity issues — will become a special adviser to U. President Taylor Randall. The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Division is to be disbanded, effective July 1 under HB261.
  • Employees in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Division and the U. health division's diversity office may get new job titles and broader job descriptions, and be reassigned to new offices.
  • Student cultural centers — resource centers geared to Black, Native American and other student subgroups — have been incorporated into the U.'s Student Affairs Division as of mid-April. They had been under the umbrella of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Division.

The potential impact of changes brought on by HB261 — applicable to diversity, equity and inclusion offices at all Utah public universities, as well as diversity programs at public schools and other public entities — has been a source of worry for some. Critics say the legislation, paralleling efforts by conservative lawmakers across the country aimed at diversity programs, represents a step back in creating a supportive environment for students of color on college campuses, schools and in the public sector.

An update on the process posted online Wednesday, though, said the U. — Utah's flagship university — remains committed to the university community and values the diversity represented by students, faculty and staff.

"The unique life experiences and perspectives of our students, faculty and staff matter. These identities are what make the University of Utah a vibrant space for learning, teaching, conducting research and providing exceptional patient care," Randall said in a statement. "Our work is done one by one, with attention to individual needs — as we are each responsible for making the university a place where everyone can thrive."

At the same time, though, the new U. information Wednesday notes the "significant outreach" required by Randall and other U. officials to advocate for the university as HB261 took shape. "The 2024 legislative session presented extraordinary challenges for higher education as state decision-makers questioned the value, cost and ideological bent of Utah's institutions of higher learning. This skepticism follows a national narrative of distrust in the academy," reads a statement released Wednesday geared to faculty and staff.

HB261 proponents say the legislation aims to make services and programming currently available to students of color and other traditionally marginalized groups under diversity initiatives available to all who can benefit from them. Programs meant to help first-generation and low-income students navigate college, for instance, should be available regardless of one's race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other personal identifiers, they maintain.

Critics, though, worry the changes could make it tougher for the traditionally marginalized students who figured into creation of diversity efforts.

Utah Rep. Angela Romero, an HB261 foe, worries the new law will have a "chilling effect on diverse communities." Yes, there have been advances in addressing race issues over the years, said the Democratic lawmaker from Salt Lake City, but "we still have a long way to go."

The statements from the U., however, ensure the needs of the U.'s various student groups will remain a front-and-center focus.

Student resource centers geared to Black students, Native American students, immigrants and others will remain, even if they're under the umbrella of a different university division. "The U. will continue to celebrate all students and their unique life experiences, belief systems and heritages," reads an April 19 university statement.

Student resource center offerings will have to be available to all students due to the provisions of HB261, Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs, said in an April 15 open letter. That, however, "has always been true of these centers," she went on.

"I recognize that this transition raises many questions. While we do not have all the answers at this time, I have full confidence in our leadership's ability to find solutions that prioritize the well-being and success of our students, as well as our ability to support one another through this challenging time," McDonald said.

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Utah LegislatureUtah K-12 educationUtah higher educationUtahPoliticsEducationSalt Lake County
Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for 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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