Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions, university administrators had begun adopting “holistic” admissions calculated to evade bans on affirmative action. But similar efforts to subvert state regulations on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices, policies, and activities have escaped public attention.

Legislatures in 22 states have proposed 40 bills to regulate DEI this year. Only seven have become law. Bills to curtail DEI activities in public universities have died in deep-red states like Ohio, Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Iowa. As of this past summer, at least five states (Florida, Texas, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Idaho) have banned the use of DEI statements in university hiring through legislation or administrative action. Two (Florida and Texas) prohibited the establishment of DEI offices; several others (including North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida) have prohibited mandatory DEI training for employees.

Florida’s and Texas’s reforms stand out as the most impressive of 2023 to date. The Texas bill prohibits universities from operating offices that condone differential treatment of races, promote racial hiring, or conduct diversity training programs. Administrators who violate these provisions can be suspended after a first offense and fired after subsequent incidents. The Florida bill bans monies supporting DEI activities or political activism. Penalties for violations are enforced through administrative rules.

But while Texas and Florida universities are rewriting their rules to bring their practices into alignment with new state law, DEI commissars have signaled their intention to overcome the ban on DEI statements through “holistic hiring.” Even as former Texas A&M president Kathy Banks was promising to obey Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order banning DEI statements, her hand-picked associate provost for diversity, Annie McGowan, was articulating a strategy for obeying the letter of the law but violating its spirit. She told the Texas A&M Senate to discontinue DEI statements but to keep evaluating candidates based on their diversity-related experience and to construct job searches in such a way as to attract and hire DEI advocates.

Florida is still prepping regulations for dismantling DEI offices in public universities. Media reports suggest that the state’s best academics and diversity advocates are being chased out. The reality is different: diversity advocates are, for the most part, disguising themselves and burrowing deep within bureaucracies to wait out the current political environment.

My 2023 report on Florida’s university system showed that 13 public universities had upper-level DEI administrators. Ten of the 16 colleges at the University of Florida had dedicated DEI deans, while two were in the process of searching for deans. What has happened to these administrators under Florida law?

Three upper-level DEI administrators are no longer with their universities, while one has remained with the university, albeit in what legitimately seems to be a different position. Upper-level DEI administrators have left the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University for DEI positions at other universities. The New College chief has left the school. The other switched roles from chief diversity officer at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg to director of strategic accreditation initiatives.

Most Florida universities have not changed, however. Two higher-level administrators remain in office with new DEI titles. The University of West Florida’s chief diversity officer, for instance, is now associate vice president for academic engagement and chief diversity officer. But a number of public universities have kept their DEI administrators in place. The University of North Florida still has a chief diversity officer, while the University of Central Florida still has a vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and Florida International a vice provost for DEI. Florida Gulf Coast University still has a chief equity, ethics & equity officer and Title Ix coordinator.

A similar pattern exists at the dean level at the University of Florida (UF), where five colleges have either kept their deans unchanged or given them slightly different titles. In nursing, the associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and engagement is now the associate dean for community engagement and global affairs. Another went from being the assistant dean for inclusion to the assistant dean for experiential learning and engagement in the Levin School of Law. No changes have been made in the job descriptions of any of the six deans of “community and belonging” in UF’s School of Medicine; nor have there been changes for the associate dean for belonging in the College of Pharmacy or the assistant dean for community building and engagement in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Texas administrators are showing similar defiance to the state legislature. Both Texas and Florida affiliate with the Hanover Research Group, which cites DEI as a core value, for the provision of faculty training. Cara Crowley, vice president of strategic initiatives at Amarillo College, works with Hanover. In a recent webinar, she shared “different approaches” her college is using to get around Texas’s law, including rebranding DEI as “Love Your Neighbor.”

“We are trying to focus the attention back on the work,” Crowley explained, “and take politics out of it, but make it everybody’s job. Whether you are staff or you’re the president of the college, we all have a commitment to racial inclusivity.”

University administrators no longer talk of political activism but instead emphasize personal self-help, safety, and relieving stress. Advocates avoid DEI language and instead use terms like “belonging.” Colleges in Texas can work around state law by moving money around to make DEI efforts seem private or federal rather than state-driven. In Crowley’s words: “We are higher ed. We all have work arounds.”

State regulators need to be savvy to these deceptions. Lawmakers should consider stiffer penalties and broader implementation to avoid the game of Whac-a-Mole that college and university administrators want to play. Ultimately, personnel is policy, and universities need new leaders who will adhere to both the letter and the spirit of these state laws. 

Photo: irinka-s/iStock


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