Restricting DEI practices at Kansas universities is irresponsible



February 27, 2024 - 2:28 PM

Rep. Steven Howe, a Salina Republican, introduced legislation that would restrict diversity, equity and inclusion practices at state colleges and universities. Photo by Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector

Just in time for Black History Month, Kansas Rep. and Higher Education Budget Committee chairman Steven Howe introduced House Bill 2460, calling for restrictions on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices on college campuses.

The bill also provides the opportunity for legal action to those who feel their rights have been violated and would impose a $100,000 penalty for institutions found in violation of certain provisions of the bill. This money would come from the state’s general fund — and the true cost to the state is unknown, according to state budget director Adam Proffitt.

Howe is particularly concerned with hiring practices at institutions like Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, although what specifically he is concerned about is not clear.

In an article published by the Kansas Reflector on Jan. 31, Howe is quoted using vague language like “types of people” and “certain viewpoint,” and phrases such as “you’ve kind of weeded out people that may not share in a certain ideology.” All are unclear statements, none of which helps us understand the true intent of the bill other than to infer Howe is either unsure of, or unwilling to offer, insight on the “certain viewpoint” he is referring to. In his own committee testimony from Jan. 31, Howe expressed concerns about “requiring statements or an adherence to a particular ideology,” but again does not state what ideology concerns him to the point of introducing a statewide policy.

What we can gather is Howe appears motivated by a growing nationwide trend in which polarizing national organizations churn out generic, but significant, pieces of legislation, then task state-level legislators with sponsoring these bills. Many of these organizations are focused on launching costly, frivolous lawsuits and spinning information to sway voters. Attacking DEI initiatives through this kind of model legislation is a manipulative distraction tactic designed to prevent people from understanding the intent of, and need for, DEI initiatives in the first place.

The phrase “DEI” has become a weaponized and politically charged phrase, often used as a catch-all term to falsely signal extreme liberalism, or claim unfair favoritism toward traditionally oppressed populations. When we drill down to the core of the meaning, DEI refers to the idea that to continue moving society forward in a positive way, we need to have a variety of different voices and experiences at the table and treat those voices equally. I cannot see what is problematic about ensuring all voices are respected and treated equally.

Acknowledging our differences and respecting those differences is not about shaming one group of people for historically treating other groups poorly, as some would like you to believe. Promoting DEI initiatives on college campuses is the act of telling people they are welcome, valued, and legally entitled to be treated the same way as everyone else, regardless of their personal characteristics or beliefs. In other words, DEI aims to reinforce preexisting constitutional principles of equality.

Howe is proposing ignorant, redundant legislation he is not even willing to discuss in specific terms in order to be the leader of an unnecessary battle against imaginary political indoctrination. Where is the transparency on this issue?

What is transparent are the hiring practices and policies at major institutions throughout Kansas, that may be accessed by any person at any time. Detailed information is available on the K-State and KU human resources websites, and these schools are openly explaining their rigorous hiring practices. These documents discuss forming search committees and equitably recruiting candidates, instructions for interviewing all candidates using the same questions, and policies restricting the use of social media-based information when making hiring decisions. As evident when examining these documents, personal questions like inquiring about ideology are not acceptable questions during the hiring process.

To further protect against unfair evaluation of job candidates, KU has a learning resource titled “The Influence of Unconscious Bias in Decision Making” and K State offers a link to an online assessment designed to help ensure the numerous people involved in the hiring process do not bring their own biases to the conversation. These institutions are making every effort to explain their hiring practices to the public and protect against unfair assessments of candidates.

A DEI statement is a part of the process, but Howe’s claims that these schools are not using merit-based approaches to hiring is patently false. Institutions require applicants to provide official college transcripts, data-driven teaching evaluations completed by students, letters of recommendation, teaching philosophies, research and publication records, and extensive campus visits typically spanning 2-4 days. These visits include interviews not only with search committees but with students, other faculty members in various departments, and administration. Surely entire groups of people are not working together to discriminate against whatever ideology Howe is concerned with.

Do not allow this political scare tactic to lead you to believe something nefarious is happening on our college campuses in Kansas. The idea of political indoctrination or ideological-based discrimination is a blatant attempt to discredit educators who have no real incentive or desire to indoctrinate anyone. The goal of DEI initiatives is to ensure a variety of voices are heard and valued — not to create institutional barriers to employment based on personal beliefs.

This legislation is a phenomenally irresponsible choice given the fact there is no evidence colleges are using political beliefs when making hiring decisions. Ensuring our campuses are safe places for all people should be a top priority. This legislation is not the way to uphold the precious constitutional principle of equality.

Amber Dickinson holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Kansas and is a co-host of Inspire on KTWU.