The push to rebrand campus DEI programs

In response to state laws prohibiting campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, several U.S. public colleges and universities have eliminated programs, offices, and positions that focus on recruiting and retaining students based on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. However, some higher education institutions are finding workarounds that adhere to state laws while continuing their efforts to support and retain students historically underrepresented in higher education, The New York Times reports. 

Report: A shift in higher ed? Colleges step up efforts to foster student belonging >

Anti-DEI laws have come at a difficult time for some colleges and universities, which are working both to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to fend off growing skepticism about college’s return on investment. The Supreme Court’s ruling that ended race-conscious admissions also has heightened concerns that historically marginalized communities might feel unwelcomed and unsupported on college campuses. Some institutions say they need a variety of programs that appeal to a talented, diverse generation of college students, who enrich the campus environment and help keep enrollment strong.

Finding alternatives

Since January 2023, at least 116 colleges and universities have renamed or dismantled DEI offices, jobs, and hiring practices aimed at supporting students from historically marginalized communities, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. According to ABC News, anti-DEI laws currently exist in at least 10 states: Texas, Utah, Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Texas’s SB 17 law banning DEI programs at state colleges has led to the closure of offices and programs that supported LGBTQ+ students and students of color and lay-offs of staff that provided that support.

Higher education institutions in states with less restrictive anti-DEI laws are looking for other, less disruptive ways to continue supporting students, such as replacing the phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” from the title of offices offering identity-based support in favor of terminology with broader appeal, such as “belonging,” “engagement,” and “student development.” Utah Valley University changed the name of its Office of Inclusion and Diversity to the Office of Institutional Engagement and Effectiveness, a move the rest of Utah’s colleges will have to make by the time Utah’s HB 261 goes into effect on July 1, Inside Higher Ed reports. The law allows state universities to keep their race-based cultural centers and funds former DEI offices as long as they adhere to the law, while prohibiting those offices from being named or referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Other schools have made similar moves. The University of Tennessee’s DEI program was rebranded as the Division of Access and Engagement, the Times reports. The Division of Inclusion, Civil Rights, and Title IX at Louisiana State University was renamed the Division of Engagement, Civil Rights, and Title IX, and the University of Oklahoma’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is now the Division of Access and Opportunity. Advocates say the new names leave students from marginalized communities confused about what resources are really tailored to their specific needs and that “belonging” or “engagement” might end up in the crosshairs of anti-DEI legislators, too. 

University officials looking for alternatives to eliminating DEI programs hope students from diverse backgrounds will recognize that they will still have access to resources they need, even if the word “diversity” is absent.

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