dismay as Kentucky poised to ban DEI in colleges

Kentucky is poised to become the next state to ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges and universities, prompting student backlash.

Under a new bill advanced last week by the Kentucky house, the state would defund DEI offices and related staff at public universities and prohibit all scholarships that consider a student’s race, gender or religion in the selection criteria.

Related: Alabama bans DEI in schools and says bathrooms must be designated by ‘biological sex’

DEI, an umbrella term first conceptualized during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was popularized in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. DEI programs attempt, in part, to address racial and gender discrimination in higher education and the workforce. For example, a common DEI goal for universities and colleges is to hire more Black and brown professors – racial groups that have been historically excluded from academia.

The proposed legislation in Kentucky eliminates any degree program requiring students to complete coursework that teaches – “as truth” – that privilege and power in today’s society are rooted in “oppression, colonialism, socioeconomic status, religion, race, sex, color, or national origin”.

The bill now returns to the Republican-dominated senate, which is expected to vote on the house version in the coming days.

Earlier this week, Alabama Republicans passed a similar bill that bans funding for DEI programs and blocks public universities and colleges from allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Carlie Reeves, a senior at University of Louisville, said that “these bills are part of a larger political agenda to create legal discrimination in public institutions”. Just this week, Reeves helped organize a campus rally against Kentucky’s proposed DEI ban.

Reeves, a first-generation college student, has spent the past few weeks closely monitoring the status of Kentucky’s anti-DEI bill. During her time at the University of Louisville, Reeves found friends, networking opportunities and emotional support at the Cultural and Equity Center, a building on campus that hosts affinity programs for Black, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized students. She credits the center, in part, for her recent acceptance to the University of Chicago law school.

“I remember when I first started to go on law school tours, I overheard things like ‘oh, my dad is fraternity brothers with this clerk, my parents helped me get an internship at this law firm.’” Reeves said. “The center helps level the playing field, they bring in non-profit leaders to speak, they helped me make connections with people in the legal world who I otherwise would not have been able to meet.”

If passed, the DEI bill could jeopardize the future of the student center, which relies on state funding.

The state representative Jennifer Decker, the house bill sponsor, told fellow legislators last week that Kentucky’s public colleges and universities need to be “held accountable to dismantle the misguided DEI bureaucracies that have cost Kentucky taxpayers an unknown amount”.

Critics have described the proposed DEI ban as a rollback of hard-won advancements in racial equity. In a speech earlier this month, the Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear, a Democrat, pledged to veto any bill targeting DEI in higher education, saying the acronym represents three “very important values that are found in our Bible”.

But Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Kentucky legislature, so the governor’s veto can be sidestepped with an override vote.

The Kentucky bill comes amid the Republican party’s mounting campaign against DEI programs in American higher education. Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota last year enacted similar bans on DEI in public universities and colleges. This year, Republican state legislators across the country introduced roughly 80 bills aimed at restricting or eliminating DEI programming and resources.

In Kentucky, the anti-DEI bill enjoys vocal support from high-ranking Republican leaders such as the state attorney general, Russell Coleman – who in an opinion issued last week said: “Kentucky public postsecondary institutions will not achieve equality by being forced to treat students of different races differently.”

The crusade against DEI is part of coordinated backlash against what many rightwing leaders believe to be a liberal takeover of American culture. Project 2025, a sprawling policy blueprint written in anticipation of Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House, describes DEI as the dangerous invention of “woke culture warriors”.

The document urges “the next conservative administration” to dismantle DEI, saying the term is closely tied to the “LGBTQ+ agenda”.

After the latest house vote, University of Louisville leaders, including its president, Kim Schatzel, released a statement expressing an “unwavering commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion”.

Related: ‘Code words and dog whistling’: why the conservative attack on higher education is so efficient

“We cannot, without equivocation, support any legislation that limits the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in support of our highest priority,” the statement said.

The expression of support offered little comfort to Savannah Dowell, a student who worked closely alongside Reeves to organize Monday’s campus protest.

“Since the bill was introduced, we’ve gotten a lot of words from Kim Schatzel, but not a lot of action,” Dowell said. “I’m tired of getting empty words.”

For Kentucky undergraduate students like Reeves and Dowell, Florida offers a frightening warning of how Kentucky university officials might buckle under legal pressure by Republicans, if the DEI ban is signed into law. Earlier this month, the University of Florida terminated all its diversity, equity and inclusion positions to comply with a state law passed in January that prohibits state or federal funds from being used to fund the programs.

On Tuesday, the University of Louisville student government unanimously passed a resolution condemning the state’s DEI ban, calling on administrators to take a more forceful stand against the bill.

The resolution, shared with the Guardian, urges Schatzel to “personally issue a strong, public statement condemning the pursuit of these bills and publicize her tangible plan of action to put substance behind said statements”.

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