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Oklahoma colleges still determining impact of Stitt’s diversity, inclusion order


Oklahoma colleges still determining impact of Stitt’s diversity, inclusion order

Feb 20, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Carmen Forman
Oklahoma colleges still determining impact of Stitt’s diversity, inclusion order
The University of Oklahoma will make changes to its campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs as a result of an executive order Gov. Kevin Stitt signed in December. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Students gathered in a nondescript classroom on the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus last month to talk about how new statewide restrictions on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives could hamper anti-discrimination efforts.

Amid a wide-ranging discussion about the importance of campus diversity initiatives, students expressed fears that an executive order from Gov. Kevin Stitt could end such programs.

“Without DEI, how are we going to address discrimination?” Amari Williams, director of OU’s Black Emergency Response Team, asked the dozen or so students assembled.

“It’s going to be a nightmare,” responded Shrey Kathuria, a junior who backed a recent OU Undergraduate Student Congress resolution supporting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

OU’s campus has been rocked by high-profile racist incidents in recent years ranging from professors using racial slurs in class, a student wearing blackface and a viral video in which members of a fraternity sang a song that included racial slurs and referenced lynching.

After facing criticism for its handling of those events, OU expanded its diversity and inclusion efforts. But Stitt’s executive order could effectively undo some of that progress, the university announced in December.

The directive from Stitt prohibits state-funded diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within state agencies and on college campuses “to the extent they grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin.”

The impact on college campuses remains unclear, and the order has left some students with more questions than answers.

While talking to reporters Thursday, Stitt stressed that his order focuses on ensuring Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education aren’t using race as a factor in admissions while also addressing campus diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

Oklahoma colleges still determining impact of Stitt’s diversity, inclusion order
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gives his State of the State address. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

“That’s taxpayer money that we feel like is wasted and so let’s focus on (hiring) another engineering professor or actually educating students,” Stitt said. “We think that’s a little sidebar that universities don’t need to be participating in.”

The order does not apply to campus programs for veterans, active military members, low-income students, Pell Grant recipients and first-generation college students. Student organizations and programs that are necessary for accreditation will not be affected.

OU, OSU respond differently to Stitt’s order

When Dala Korkoyah III first arrived on OU’s campus, he lacked some of the basic items students brought to make their dorm rooms feel like home.

As an international student from Liberia, the sophomore could only pack so much.

But he said he was delighted to discover OU provides international students free bedding and other basic necessities through an initiative sponsored by the campus diversity and inclusion office.

At the Black Student Emergency Response Team event on campus, Korkoyah said talking about the benefits of diversity and inclusion initiatives is key to helping everyone understand why they’re necessary.

“I think DEI programs right now are being portrayed as something that is sort of an indoctrination process or it’s giving certain groups of people preference over another,” he said. “I think through these conversations, people who may not actually understand why it is necessary to have these programs can hear testimonials from individuals who have benefited from these programs.”

After the state’s two largest universities had dramatically different responses to Stitt’s order, smaller public institutions say they are still reviewing their diversity programs to determine what, if any, changes may be necessary.

Oklahoma State University President Kayse Shrum in December sent a campus-wide email that said an initial review of the directive indicated “no significant changes” to campus practices would be necessary. An OSU spokesperson did not answer follow-up questions about Shrum’s statement and the impact of Stitt’s order.

OU President Joseph Harroz in December said Stitt’s order would effectively end campus diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

OU’s press office didn’t answer a series of questions about how Stitt’s order could affect the campus and what’s next for the university’s diversity offices. Harroz told students in January no OU employees would lose their jobs as a result, according to The Oklahoma Daily, a student news organization.

Asked about how many academic programs require a diversity, equity or inclusion component as a condition of accreditation, an OU spokesperson said an analysis of existing programs and data is underway.

Stitt’s executive order asks public colleges and universities to review their diversity and inclusion programs and submit by May 31 reports detailing any campus initiatives that were restricted or eliminated.

“We’ve had conversations with both of the major universities, and they say they’re complying and they’re working through it,” Stitt said.

‘Attacking people of color’

National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education President Paulette Granberry Russell said there’s likely some confusion and questions surrounding Stitt’s order, specifically the part that prohibits state-funded programs that give “preferential treatment” based on race or other inherent qualities.

Some people associate the idea of “preferential treatment” with affirmative action, she said.

But that idea wrongly suggests that by helping marginalized student populations, colleges and universities are discriminating against white students, she said.

“Institutions cannot discriminate under federal law and state law,” she said. “I think it is important for them to say and be very clear, ‘That is not what we do.’ Characterizing the work as a form of discrimination and preferential treatment is misrepresenting the efforts.”

Williams, an OU junior and director of the Black Emergency Response Team, said she’s confused why Stitt would take aim at campus programs that are intended to help students by fostering an inclusive environment, especially when those programs amount to less than 1% of higher education spending.

Oklahoma colleges still determining impact of Stitt’s diversity, inclusion order
Amari Williams is the director of OU’s Black Emergency Response Team. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs help marginalized groups, including Black students, women, international students and those who identify as LGBTQ+ on a predominantly white campus, she said.

“When we’re talking about DEI programs, it’s not a leg up for us,” she said. “It’s bringing us level to people who don’t have to face the same marginalization that we do.”

OU’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion reported last year that some of its programs include faculty and staff workshops aimed at fostering an inclusive campus environment, celebrations for cultural heritage months, tributes to veterans, events for Indigenous students, online training on mitigating bias, mentoring events to help women in the workplace and a conference for historically underrepresented students.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives help students from underrepresented groups get acclimated on campus in addition to helping them find resources, jobs and a community to help them navigate college, Williams said.

“Attacking DEI programs is attacking people of color in a way that will undermine our success,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has said OU misinterpreted Stitt’s executive order and does not need to eliminate its diversity and inclusion offices. The order requires a review of such programs and only “if deemed necessary” will initiatives be restructured or eliminated, the group said in December.

The ACLU stands by its assessment, said Director Tamya Cox-Touré.

“I think that we still feel very strongly that OU did not have to go as far as it did,” she said. “The conversations we’re having with higher ed is that they’re doing what was asked in that executive order, which was to do the review and see how much was going toward that, but thankfully, no one has taken that big leap like OU did.”

Other Oklahoma universities reviewing programs

Other Oklahoma colleges and universities say they are in the process of reviewing their programs.

The University of Central Oklahoma, located in Edmond, has a group of campus leaders working to identify relevant programs, practices and positions to determine if any could be affected by the executive order, said spokesperson Adrienne Nobles.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University, located in Durant, also is “actively and thoroughly” evaluating its programs and operations to ensure compliance, said spokesperson Josh Manck.

Cameron University, located in Lawton, currently has no employees assigned specifically to diversity and equity positions, and the university is reviewing the May reporting requirements, said spokesperson Keith Mitchell. No programs have been suspended or modified, he said in January.

“University-funded activities are open to every student, regardless of race or ethnicity,” Mitchell added.

Langston University, a historically Black college, is committed to serving its students while also meeting the legal obligations of the executive order, said spokesperson Ellie Melero.

“Although Langston University does not have a formal DEI office, there are many services such as ADA and Title IX intended to foster an inclusive environment,” she said.