Utah House OKs final version of diversity, equity, inclusion bill; now it goes to Gov. Cox

Jan 26, 2024, 2:04 PM | Updated: 4:17 pm

Rep. Katy Hall...

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, presents HB261 as Senate members of the Education Standing Committee hear comments at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. The Utah House on Friday approved changes to the measure implemented by the Senate and it will now go to Gov. Spencer Cox for his consideration. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers have reached accord on the proposed overhaul of diversity, equity and inclusion programming at the state’s public universities, after about a week and a half of debate.

Following Friday’s House vote to approve changes to HB261 implemented by the Utah Senate, the measure goes for the consideration of Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s indicated support for the change.

Utah Rep. Katy Hall, the chief sponsor of HB261, acknowledged the strong sentiments the measure has inspired — pro and con — and issued a call, of sorts, for reconciliation. Proponents say the measure would “level the playing field” for all university students in terms of access to assistance and support, while foes worry students of color and others who have traditionally benefited from diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives could take a hit.

“There is more work to be done. And it’s up to all of us, and all of the people in our communities as we move forward, to treat each other with kindness and reach out to people in our communities and lift them up,” said Hall, R-South Ogden. “Lift up those who need it, no matter what their circumstances.”

HB261, coming amid national debate over diversity, equity and inclusion programming, would expand such initiatives to all students, not just Black students and others from marginalized groups, the traditional focuses. It would also prohibit universities and other public entities from requiring “diversity statements” of job applicants and aim to foster “academic freedom” on college campuses.

The proposal stems in part from concerns, chiefly from conservatives, that diversity, equity and inclusion programming, by focusing on marginalized students, leaves out others who could benefit from such initiatives. Diversity, equity and inclusion backers, meantime, see dismantling and overhauling of the programming as a step back in the civil rights movement.

Rep. Angela Romero, R-Salt Lake City, has been one of the most vocal critics of HB261, and she reiterated her concerns ahead of Friday’s vote. The change, she argued, “doesn’t send the right message” to some.

“Again, I know many of you are doing this because you want to create a level playing field. But I’m telling you, the message is not the same to many of us out there in the community,” said Romero, who’s Hispanic.

She noted that she benefited from a cultural center at the University of Utah when a student there — that it served as a safe space after unpleasant interactions. “I knew I could go in there and talk to someone about what had just happened and they would understand. And I knew I would have a support system of students that had the same experiences that I did,” she said.

HB261 received an initial hearing in the House Education Committee on Jan. 17, last week, and has quickly mustered support from the Republican majority in the House and Senate. The Democratic minority in each body has solidly opposed the measure, while it has garnered intense support from some in the public and just as strong opposition from others.

Rep. Neil Walter, R-St. George, said the measure — in the works for the last year, according to Hall — doesn’t pull any funding. Rather, it’s about expanding assistance to all students in need.

“We’re focusing on making sure we can provide support to all of our students in our great state of Utah,” he said. “We are very much concerned about making sure that we help people have a successful experience in navigating their higher education experience. … We’re not trying to do anything to take resources away from minorities or other underserved communities.”

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, suspects changes will be needed, presuming Cox signs it into law, saying it would likely be addressed in future session.

Among the changes to the measure from the Utah Senate, approved Friday by the House, was the addition of language assuring continuation of agreements on scholarships and other matters between the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe, Hall said. Moreover, language was added to preserve the ability of healthcare officials to gather information on diseases and other ailments that may disproportionately impact certain racial or ethnic groups, according to Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, the Senate sponsor of HB261.

In response to a query, Hall said groups at elementary schools like Latinos in Action, meant to empower Latino students, could continue, though they’d have to be open to all students. Romero says many questions about HB261 remain. The measure would apply to K-12 schools and other publicly funded entities.

“We haven’t even talked about how this has an impact with people who work in public schools when there’s an issue,” she said. “We don’t even know how this has an impact (on) local government. And I live and work for a city (where) people of color are the majority.”

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Utah House OKs final version of diversity, equity, inclusion bill; now it goes to Gov. Cox