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WSU students, professor studying impact of service closures in wake of DEI legislation

By Rob Nielsen - | Jul 9, 2024

Rob Nielsen, Standard-Examiner

The Weber State University campus in Ogden is pictured Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.

OGDEN -- What impact will the closure of several student services in the wake of legislation like 2024's House Bill 261 have on the students who utilized those services?

That's exactly what an ongoing study at Weber State University aims to find out.

Teresa Thompson, a master of professional communications student and research assistant at WSU; Dr. Michael Alt, associate professor of communications and director of the master of professional communications program at WSU; and Pamela Nunez, an undergraduate student at WSU studying psychological science with a minor in family studies, are all working on the project.

"In January, when the legislation passed, I was beginning the master's program and also the research assistant position," Thompson said. "Looking through the newspaper articles and seeing that the legislation was based off of no data, it made me think we should get data, and it just started spurring ideas. I began talking with Dr. Alt about these ideas and that's kind of where it all started."

She said the research project aims at measuring several parameters such as how legislation like this affects students' identification, disidentification, psychological safety, thriving and sense of belonging.

"In the research, (they) are all measurable through qualitative and quantitative studies," she said. "Right now, we're doing in-depth interviews with students and we are beginning a quantitative survey that measures these different theories of research. In six months, we will be looking to see if it has changed in these students with the changes that are coming about because of the legislation."

H.B. 261, dubbed "Equal Opportunity Initiatives," was passed with the intent of ending diversity initiatives in higher education and other public institutions, banning them from "taking certain actions and engaging in discriminatory practices."

The Signpost, WSU's student news service, reported in June that several entities were set to shut their doors, including the LGBTQ+ Center, Black Cultural Center, Native American Cultural Center, Hispanic & Latino Cultural Center, Pan-Asian Cultural Center, Pasifika Cultural Center, Dream Center and the Women's Center. These centers' staffers were merged into the Student Success Center.

In a June email from the Utah State Auditor's Office detailing how to report violations of the bill, State Auditor John Dougall claimed that DEI initiatives don't accomplish their goals.

"Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives claim to create more inclusive, equitable environments in workplaces and educational institutions," he said. "Whatever their good intentions, many DEI initiatives become tools of virtue signaling and can stifle diversity while promoting discrimination. DEI statements can essentially become ideological litmus tests, stifling diversity, equity, and inclusion. They can discourage certain applicants from considering possible employment and could impose excessive and improper speech control. That's one reason why I've collaborated with state officials nationwide to challenge ESG and DEI initiatives that can impair government operations, distort financial markets, and hinder investments."

Dougall did not cite examples of where DEI initiatives had promoted discrimination or stifled diversity.

Thompson said that as of last week, 64 respondents had finished the survey, and they will do in-depth interviews of up to 25 students. She said 14 interviews have been completed.

"At this point, we are continuing to gather the data," she said. "With the interviews, which is qualitative, we go through and we code them. We find it's similar to journalism where you're looking for evidence and patterns in what they're saying about these changes and how they feel the legislature approached this new law. Then, once we get that, we go deeper into it and bring in the theory and the research that is very foundational to show the effect of what's happening with these students."

Thompson relayed part of what one of the participating students -- whom she identified as being a "male Latinx student" -- said in their interview.

"My first language is Spanish," he said. "I've been talking Spanish my whole life. I understand the world through Spanish. I'm going to have a different understanding of the world than somebody who was born here in Utah. Just knowing that we're always going to be different, but that doesn't mean we have to be radical about that. I think that we should have a starting point of conversation, not just trying to make all the groups smaller or even disappear."

Alt said ultimately, real lives are being impacted by these decisions.

"A lot of the decisions that are being made in regards to diversity, equity and inclusion are just people going with their gut or going with their own biases and not really seeking out what is actually happening or what the data suggests," he said. "If we're going to make legislation, we need to recognize how much that impacts peoples' lives. This isn't just identity politics, virtue signaling, trying to get reelected -- these decisions have real-world impacts on real people and how they engage with the institutions within our state."

Any current Weber State students who have utilized the services of one of the above-listed centers who is interested in participating in the survey or interview process is encouraged to contact Teresa Thompson at teresathompson1@mail.weber.edu.



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