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Utah universities eliminate cultural centers, lose employees ahead of anti-DEI law start date

Weber State University will turn identity-based resources into student success and engagement centers

By Alixel Cabrera - Utah News Dispatch | May 16, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

A statue of the University of Utah logo is pictured on campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

Utah universities are eliminating their diversity, equity and inclusion offices, moving away from cultural centers and redirecting their staff to serve schoolwide departments to assure compliance with the state’s new anti-DEI law.

Weber State University is eliminating all of its cultural centers — for Black, Native, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ+, women and undocumented students, Brad Mortensen, president of the university told the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee.

The school is repurposing all of those into a sole “Student Success and Engagement” program, though that name isn’t definite yet, Mortensen said.

“There will be navigational coaches and student engagement program managers who are open to all students, without an assignment to a particular identity, to really help make students navigate their college experience,” he added.

The school’s vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion will become an associate vice president for student success, a role that will be part of Weber State’s student access and success division, Mortensen said.

University of Utah President Taylor Randall reiterated the school’s intention to eliminate its Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion come July 1, when the law goes into effect. Staff from the office are expected to change job titles and broaden job descriptions. However, Randall noted, five of those employees decided they did not want to move forward with that change.

“A lot of our employees decided this wasn’t the work they wanted to do, so five individuals or five jobs have not been refilled,” Randall said, “and that probably amounts to about $500,000 of savings.”

The head of the U.’s to-be-former EDI division will serve a transition period as a special adviser to Randall, he added. “But won’t have any administrative ability or any administrative responsibilities in the administration. She’ll be doing some community work that’s kind of leftover and trying to figure out how to reorganize that.”

The overhaul precedes the approval of HB261, or Equal Opportunity Initiatives, a bill that banned public institutions from maintaining certain DEI policies or offices, including asking for DEI statements as a hiring practice and certain diversity training.

Since then the Utah Board of Higher Education issued guidance to comply with HB261, and is planning on adding a compliance unit to assess how schools abide by the new law and to establish campus climate surveys, one of the requirements of the bill. Those assessments are scheduled to start after July and will be reported to lawmakers in 2025.

The process is looking different for public schools, and though the law has already been approved and signed, some lawmakers still have questions about the unintended consequences of the legislation.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who opposed the bill as it advanced in the Legislature, questioned how grouping all students together would be more efficient and financially responsible during the Wednesday meeting. She also worried what these changes could mean for women.

“I just am really concerned that we’re just pivoting too far away from being specific to the needs of individuals. I know for a fact that women that go to college have very serious concerns about their safety, where to get resources to succeed at the same rate as their male counterparts,” Riebe said. “And for us to reverse all that science just to say we don’t want to have a label is really hard for me.”

Weber State is taking a more aggressive approach in removing identity-based names from all cultural centers, Mortensen said. But, the law still allows cultural centers, as long as they are not exclusive.

“I was challenged by one faculty member who said, ‘well, how can you have inclusion if it’s invisible?'” Mortensen said. He hopes the state universities and colleges are able to revisit the policies in a couple of years and evaluate outcomes. “We’re taking the brave optimist approach and trying to do it within the bounds of the law.”

In his presentation, Mortensen added that as Weber State prepares for its mid-cycle review from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, it is considering how to better serve all students while eliminating educational gaps.

Some of the groups the school is looking at are those who don’t have adequate math or English skills for college work, as well as first-generation students, people of color and other minorities, low-income students and those older than 25.

Though there has been an increase in completion from all of these groups, Mortensen said, the school could still do better.

“For those students, it’s really not about intelligence. It’s just about the preparation they’ve had,” he said. “And we know that we still have a lot of room to gain and so we’re focusing on that as an institution.”

The school is also taking action to assure that there is viewpoint diversity in guest speakers. It’s also reviewing its mandatory training and collecting mandatory course syllabi in a database to ensure compliance with the law.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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