House pivots to DEI bill, imposing fines on offenders

Bill aims to deter diversity, equity and inclusion pledges in hiring and enrollment at public colleges, universities.

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March 6, 2024 - 2:52 PM

Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said it was unlikely he could support a House bill designed to force public universities, community colleges and technical colleges to remove DEI policies from hiring and enrollment decisions or face $100,000 state fines as well as private and state lawsuits. Photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — A Kansas House committee plans to move ahead Wednesday with a bill exposing public universities, community colleges and technical colleges to $100,000 administrative penalties and expensive lawsuits for compelling students or employees to pledge allegiance to diversity, equity and inclusion doctrine.

Conservative politicians and organizations have campaigned in Kansas and other states against higher education institutions committed to use of so-called DEI policies in recruiting faculty and students of color. Opponents of DEI view these strategies as discriminatory, violations of free speech and an improper use of tax dollars. DEI supporters said the policies were a response to exclusionary practices that for decades repelled communities of color from university campuses.

Salina Rep. Steven Howe, the Republican chairman of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, said public Kansas colleges and universities with DEI programs shouldn’t be allowed to mandate someone make or sign a DEI statement as a condition of employment or enrollment. His reform bill would carve out an exemption for college and university staff directly engaged in DEI activities.

“There’s a strong majority — not a supermajority — a strong majority of legislators that agree that these DEI statements can too easily function as ideological litmus tests that threaten employment or advancement for faculty that may hold dissenting views,” Howe said.

DEI: Round 2

Howe introduced House Bill 2460 a year ago and conducted a public committee hearing on the legislation in January. It followed passage during the 2023 legislative session of a budget directive that Kansas Board of Regents universities stop asking job applicants to talk about personal experiences with diversity, equity and inclusion. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the proviso and the House fell five votes short of overriding her.

Howe said he would ask his House committee to work through amendments to the bill before determining whether support existed to send it to the full House. Under the current version, DEI mandates wouldn’t apply to private colleges or universities. Some of these church-affiliated private colleges, including Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, operate DEI programs.

Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, said he was supportive of the DEI legislation, but was skeptical votes existing in the House and Senate to override another Kelly veto.

“However, I don’t think that’s a reason not to bring it up on the floor of the House and Senate,” Fairchild said. “It’s an issue that deserves to be discussed, debated. Put everybody on record.”

Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said he wouldn’t vote for this kind of legislation until Kansas lawmakers modernized the Kansas Act Against Discrimination to extend protections to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

He said it was worrisome Attorney General Kris Kobach would be authorized by the bill to file lawsuits alleging violation of DEI statute. The bill would allow individuals asserting harm from DEI policies to file civil suits. The statute itself also could be challenged in court by critics of such a law.

‘Little excessive’

Democratic Rep. Mike Amyx of Lawrence said he was struggling with provisions of the bill authorizing $100,000 fines for every verified infraction. The cash from payment of fines would be redirected to a higher education institution that hadn’t violated the mandate for at least two years.

“We’re considering fining the universities? The same universities that we fund? It’s kind of like taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other pocket,” Amyx said.

Rep. Clarke Sanders, R-Salina, said he was concerned with the “little excessive” amount of a fine. He pointed to lack of clear definitions in the bill as to what DEI activities could be problematic for a college or university. A legislative audit indicated the six state universities devoted $9 million annually in public funding to DEI, which could include assistance for veterans to aid for minority students or individuals with disabilities.

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