With State Bans on D.E.I., Some Universities Find a Workaround: Rebranding

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In recent years, universities across the United States have been renaming and reshaping their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D.E.I.) programs. This change often involves rebranding offices and rewriting requirements to remove words like “diversity” and “equity.” For example, the University of Tennessee now calls its D.E.I. program the Division of Access and Engagement, Louisiana State University renamed its office to the Division of Engagement, Civil Rights and Title IX, and the University of Oklahoma has rebranded its office as the Division of Access and Opportunity.

This rebranding appears to be a strategy to placate opponents of D.E.I. programs without fundamentally changing their missions. Universities are doing this at a time when they face various challenges, including a decline in student enrollment due to lower birth rates and increasing skepticism about the value of a college degree. Additionally, there’s concern about how the ban on race-conscious admissions might impact the diversity of their student bodies.

Despite political pressures, many universities believe they need D.E.I. offices to attract a diverse generation of students and faculty. These offices often handle important functions such as running student cultural centers, ensuring compliance with regulations, and organizing racial bias workshops.

Conservative critics argue that D.E.I. programs are costly and accuse them of being left-wing indoctrination. Some states have passed laws limiting D.E.I. efforts. For example, since 2023, more than 20 states have seen over 82 bills opposing D.E.I. in higher education, with 12 becoming law. States like Idaho, Indiana, Florida, and Texas have implemented such laws, leading to layoffs and the closure of D.E.I. offices.

At the University of Florida, more than a dozen diversity employees were laid off, and the Multicultural Engagement Center at the University of Texas at Austin was closed. Approximately 60 administrators in Texas received notices that they would lose their jobs, and some campuses shut down their LGBTQ centers.

However, some schools in states with D.E.I. crackdowns have responded more moderately. Florida State University (FSU) has reshuffled jobs and renamed its Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office to the Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance and Engagement. Despite these changes, FSU students are still required to take two diversity courses, which cover a wide range of topics such as Buddhist ethics, German literature, and LGBTQ history. A proposal to rename this requirement to “perspectives and awareness” was rejected by the faculty senate, with concerns that changing the name would undermine the requirement’s purpose.

Opinions on D.E.I. programs vary widely. At Kennesaw State University in Georgia, finance professor David Bray believes that diversity offices should be eliminated rather than renamed. Kennesaw State rebranded its diversity office as the Division of Organizational Effectiveness, Leadership Development, and Inclusive Excellence after the state Board of Regents barred Georgia’s 26 public colleges from requiring diversity statements. Dr. Bray criticizes these efforts, arguing that they promote equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity.

Many university administrators view name changes as a way to preserve the mission of D.E.I. programs. For instance, Donde Plowman, the chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, emphasized the need to attract students from underrepresented groups. The percentage of Black students at the university declined from 5.5% in 2020 to 4.2% in 2023. Dr. Plowman explained that terms like “diversity” and “equity” have become politically charged and create distractions from the real work. Therefore, the program was renamed the Division of Access and Engagement to better reflect its goals.

Despite the rebranding efforts, some lawmakers remain skeptical. In Tennessee, a bill introduced in January sought to ensure that no such offices should operate under any name. However, the bill was killed after the Knoxville Jewish Alliance expressed concerns that it would limit support for Jewish students at the University of Tennessee.

Universities are navigating a complex landscape where political pressures, declining enrollments, and changing societal attitudes influence their D.E.I. programs. While some institutions have opted for rebranding to avoid political backlash, others continue to face significant challenges in maintaining their commitment to diversity and inclusion. The future of these programs will depend on how universities balance these pressures with their mission to support a diverse and inclusive campus community.

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