An executive order issued by the Trump administration to curtail training on racial and gender bias has sowed confusion at colleges and universities, prompting several institutions to pause programming, and sparking an outcry from higher education associations.
The September 22 executive order bars recipients of federal grants from teaching ideologies that suggest that America “is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors.” The order states that federal contractors and grant recipients—including colleges and universities—that do share these “divisive concepts” and engage in “race and sex stereotyping or scapegoating” stand to lose federal research grants and other funding.
The New York Times notes that while “such orders, prompted by the president’s fixations of the moment, have been staples of the Trump years and often lead nowhere… this time, the impact has rippled through corporate America, academia, and the government with remarkable speed.”
Some institutions press pause
While some institutions have stood firm and said the order is too vague or amounts to censorship, others have paused or even canceled diversity-related programming as they sort out next steps.
The University of Iowa, which has 923 active federally funded projects, paused DEI training and programming through October 18. Liz Tovar, the institution’s associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion said that “diversity, equity, and inclusion remain as core values within our institution” but that “given the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order” the university felt it needed time to review its programming.
Texas State University similarly has temporarily ceased employee diversity training to see if the order “may ultimately require some changes.” Texas State President Denise Trauth said the institution remains committed to “supporting an equitable and inclusive learning, living, and working environment for all members of our community” but does not want “to jeopardize this critical financial support.”
In Illinois, John A. Logan College canceled its diversity events, including a Hispanic Heritage Month talk by Roberto E. Barrios, a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Barrios told Inside Higher Ed that his talk, titled “Reflections on Hispanic and Latinx Identity in a Time of Upheavals,” was unlikely to even run afoul of the order, adding that one of the important missions of a university “is helping develop future citizens who can think critically.”
Higher ed groups urge administration to reverse course
The American Council on Education, in conjunction with 54 other higher education associations, is calling on the administration to withdraw the order. In an October 8 letter, the groups wrote that the executive order is both “creating concern, confusion, and uncertainty” and having “a chilling effect on the good faith and lawful efforts of campus officials to build and sustain non-discriminatory and non-hostile workplaces and learning communities.”
Under the order, they write, public and private institutions will be forced to carry out unwieldy and costly compliance reviews, inevitably disrupting the delivery of needed trainings.
Trainings that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion “are essential to the long-term strength, economic competitiveness, and security of our nation,” the letter states, adding that “the recent tragedies of racial violence underscore now, more than ever, the importance of vigorous efforts to address racism and injustice and to promote diversity and inclusion.”
Free speech groups also have voiced concerns, calling the order censorship. “The implications for higher education and the creative community are grave, but the potential impact is broader than that as well,” Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, said.
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, reinforced this in an interview with Education Dive: “If inequities persist, how do we correct them, if we can’t talk about them?”