Legislative debate about DEI at universities gets personal

A lawmaker apologized and retracted his comments that accused a college student of lying when she said she had to fill out a DEI survey when applying for a job.

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State News

May 8, 2024 - 1:59 PM

Sarah Green, a student at the University of Kansas, testified in support of a bill restraining diversity, equity and inclusion policies at public colleges and universities. Her advocacy evoked the wrath of a Kansas House member, who later withdrew his criticism of her. Photo by Kansas Reflector screen capture

TOPEKA — The drama of Kansas legislators working to disrupt diversity, equity and inclusion policies at public universities and colleges had been playing for more than a year before Sarah Green and Brandon Woodard personalized the political debate.

Green, a University of Kansas engineering student and member of Student Senate, testified before a Kansas House committee in January in support of a bill prohibiting higher education institutions tied to the Kansas Board of Regents from making use of DEI mandates in hiring and admissions. She told lawmakers that she had to complete a DEI survey when applying for a part-time job as a math tutor for Kansas Athletics, the nonprofit corporation managing the university’s sports programs.

“I believe the university and the public will be better off by eliminating DEI from the hiring and admissions process,” Green said. “While some of the trainings aren’t explicitly mandatory, there is a pressure to just go along and complete all the DEI activities. It is overwhelming being faced with this ideology in every corner on campus with little room for debate or dissent.”

Several Republicans on the House Higher Education Budget Committee posed questions to Green about her experiences at KU. Rep. Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and KU graduate, didn’t interact with her during the committee hearing.

He did register opposition to the Legislature’s ongoing campaign to micromanage universities by undermining DEI.

Sparks flew, however, during House floor debate on the DEI bill. Woodard accused Green of misrepresenting herself to the House committee and claimed she didn’t make clear the job associated with DEI training was with Kansas Athletics rather than the academic side of the university. The Democrat went so far as to call Green a liar.

“It came to my attention that Representative Woodard, who did not ask me any questions in committee, brought up my testimony over a month later on the floor, where I was not present,” Green said. “In this speech, he accused me of lying to the committee and asked for my testimony to not be acknowledged. I did not lie or mislead the committee in any way.”

Talking it out

Green sought a meeting with Woodard to request a retraction. The two did speak. They chose to agree to disagree about merits of DEI on university campuses, but Woodard went a step further.

“While I pride myself on my record of presenting fact-based debate in committee and on the House floor, I also believe that, as leaders, we must admit when we trip up,” Woodard said in a social media post. “During the floor debate, I mistakenly said that the information provided to the committee was misleading and said that the conferee ‘lied.’ It was wrong for me to say that the student lied to the committee.”

“For that,” he said, “I not only retract my statement but would like to apologize to the conferee. I started my journey in public service by testifying before our Legislature as a student at the University of Kansas. I firmly believe that regardless of Kansans’ views on policy, they should have a Legislature that listens to their passion for issues, hears their concerns and weighs their point of view when making a decision.”

Green said she appreciated Woodard’s willingness to engage in a dialogue on the issue and agreed “we should strive to speak with each other rather than shouting past one another.”

She said her personal advocacy on behalf of DEI legislation apparently prompted calls and emails to KU from people who wanted her dismissed from a student ambassador position. She said somebody posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, that she was a “fascist.”

“I think the point of the criticism and name-calling isn’t to persuade, but to stop people from speaking up,” Green said. “Unfortunately, I think it mostly works.”

Fate of DEI bill

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