EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

University of Utah highlights positive impacts of equity, diversity and inclusion programs

Feb 21, 2024, 9:56 AM

Lauren Rives, a senior at the University of Utah, speaks at a demonstration against HB261 at the U....

Lauren Rives, a senior at the University of Utah, speaks at a demonstration against HB261 at the U. on Jan. 22. The U. on Monday released a "scorecard" noting the impact of its equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. (Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)

(Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)

SALT LAKE CITY — Even as the equity, diversity and inclusion programs at Utah’s universities face massive changes stemming from GOP lawmakers’ charges that they serve too limited a pool and exclude white people, the University of Utah is lauding the impact the programs have had.

In a “scorecard” the U. released Monday, the university highlighted the impact of its division for equity, diversity and inclusion during the 2022-23 academic year. Among other things, the second-year retention rate among “EDI scholars” — students who took part in three particular equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives — was 94% at the start of the 2023-24 school year compared to 85% among the overall undergraduate student body.

“EDI scholar programs impact students from historically underrepresented groups who find themselves navigating an institutional culture and bureaucracy that can present unintended barriers,” reads the scorecard.

Broadly, the scorecard also offers a positive assessment of the objective of equity, diversity and inclusion programming, which had come under fire by Utah’s GOP lawmakers as too narrowly focused while they debated HB261 last month. The University of Utah’s diversity programming, in its current incarnation, is not quite 5 years old.

“Across EDI’s resource and cultural centers … university students have the opportunity to participate in a variety of programs, curriculum, networking and mentoring activities that strengthen their performance, bolster their sense of belonging and supercharge their post-graduation success,” reads the U.’s scorecard. The varied centers include the U.’s American Indian Resource Center; Black Cultural Center; Dream Center, geared to undocumented students and those from “mixed-status families”; and the Center for Equity & Student Belonging, geared to “underrepresented” students.

Diversity programming, broadly, aims to help minority and other traditionally marginalized student groups thrive in a college setting, but in approving HB261 last month, many Utah lawmakers argued the initiatives should encompass all in need, including white students. Per the new legislation, blasted by the Democratic minority in the Utah House and Senate, diversity programming at Utah’s public universities, public schools and other public entities is to be overhauled by July 1 to address the lawmakers’ worries. The Legislature’s Democrats and other HB261 foes viewed the bill as a step back in protecting the civil rights of students and others of color.

Here are other impacts of the U.’s diversity initiatives, according to the scorecard:

  • The equity, diversity and inclusion resources and the university’s cultural centers “positively impact students’ sense of belonging across a number of important domains,” a survey of the programming found.
  • First-year students participating in the equity, diversity and inclusion scholars programs had a higher grade point average in the 2022-23 school year, 3.43, compared to first-year students as a whole, 3.29.
  • Participation in diversity events increased by 23% compared to 2021-22, visits to program websites went up by 6.3% and the number of followers to the initiative’s varied social media platforms went up by 20%.

“The division continues to generate more opportunities for student connection, belonging and success across the entire University of Utah campus and community,” reads the scorecard.

Separately, the university has come up with new details on how it plans to adjust to another provision in HB261, a prohibition on seeking “diversity statements” from job applicants. Such statements are meant to gauge job seekers’ views and experience related to diversity initiatives and students of color, but foes variously said they prod job applicants to think a certain way or deter conservative job applicants altogether.

In an online post updated last Thursday, the U. offered additional details on the impact of the change and preliminary guidelines for adjusting.

While the university will no longer ask for equity, diversity and inclusion statements, job postings may note that the school teaches students and trainees “with a wide variety of backgrounds,” the guidelines read. Job applicants can be asked about their experience working with students of varied backgrounds.

“You may also ask them to describe their strategy for teaching and/or mentoring the students/trainees that your department serves,” the university said.

To encourage a “broad pool” of job applicants, the university suggested asking for candidates “from all backgrounds” in job postings. “It is acceptable to indicate the University of Utah values candidates who have experience working in settings with students from different backgrounds and possess a strong commitment to improving access to, and success in, higher education for all students,” read the preliminary guidelines, still focus of fine-tuning.

The final changes to comply with HB261, however, are still in the works. “We will be working internally and with our peer institutions and (the Utah System of Higher Education) to develop guidance for our campus as we get closer to the July 1 implementation date of HB261,” U. spokeswoman Rebecca Walsh said.

Meantime, the leader of the U.’s Black Cultural Center, Meligha Garfield, will be leaving the post in March to take a job at Georgia Tech University’s Office of Black Culture, Innovation and Technology, according to a press release last Friday from the U. The center, one prong of the U.’s diversity initiatives, aims in part to bolster recruitment and retention of Black faculty, staff members and students.

In his tenure of some five years, “Meligha has played a pivotal role in fostering a sense of community and inclusivity for Black students, faculty and staff. As the director of the (Black Cultural Center), he spearheaded initiatives that celebrated the rich diversity of Black culture, providing a space for dialogue, artistic expression and intellectual exploration,” reads the press release.

Though diversity initiatives have come under fire from some who view them as exclusionary toward white people, Garfield said some programming at the Black Cultural Center was geared toward students of all backgrounds. The center held its grand opening in September 2019.

“These programs are designed to uplift not only African American students, but students of any ethnicity, faith tradition or individual personal identity,” Garfield said in a statement. “The cool thing is that we are able to attract a diverse array of students into our programs. No one is excluded.”

Walsh said Garfield applied for the Georgia Tech position early last fall last year and accepted a job offer before the beginning of the legislative session, ahead of the sometimes-heated public debate over HB261.

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University of Utah highlights positive impacts of equity, diversity and inclusion programs