Kansas Republican lawmakers are doubling down on efforts to target mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion hiring statements at state universities.

The Kansas House is weighing legislation to bar state universities from requiring job applicants to support or oppose statements about diversity, equity, inclusion or patriotism. Institutions that violate the prohibition would be open to lawsuits.

In the Kansas Senate, lawmakers have raised doubts about reappointing Kansas Board of Regents Chair Jon Rolph over concerns he’s too supportive of DEI efforts.

For years colleges in Kansas and across the country have operated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices aimed at creating a more welcoming environment for an increasingly diverse collection of students. Opponents say that, in practice, DEI is synonymous with “woke” and left-leaning ideology.

“My concern is they’re systematically removing any type of conservative thought from higher education,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.

Masterson said universities should continue work to ensure students and faculty of color are welcome. “But it should be the same for everybody. That’s the problem here, you’re showing favoritism.”

The Kansas efforts come amid a renewed conservative focus on academia nationally. Republicans have long expressed frustration with left-wing ideology in higher education and DEI initiatives in colleges were targeted by Republican-led state legislatures last year.

But calls for action have grown in recent months, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action admission policies and two elite university presidents resigned following congressional hearings on antisemitism in higher education.

Republicans in Kansas are riding that momentum, prompting concern among critics that colleges will be forced to back away from efforts to be more welcoming for diverse communities.

While it’s unclear at this point whether lawmakers will ultimately pass new restrictions or block Rolph’s confirmation, the efforts continue a pressure campaign launched last year to force changes.

Donnavan Dillon, a University of Kansas junior, said the pushback on DEI initiatives is coming just as universities begin to take challenges to diversity seriously and acknowledge structural barriers in the way of students of color attending and feeling welcome.

Dillon, who is Black, said that if Kansas universities are pressured or forced to pull back, the result will be a less welcoming environment for students like him.

DEI efforts, Dillon said, “showed some intentionality with trying to address the issue of our colleges not being a safe and welcoming space and the door not being open at all for people who look like me.”

But Garrett Henson, president of Kansas College Republicans, said conservative students often feel underrepresented at Kansas colleges and that DEI efforts focus on “superficial differences that can be used to separate us.”

“Campus administration deliberately pushes leftist ideology on students and oftentimes does not represent the conservative viewpoint fairly,” Henson, a senior at Washburn University in Topeka, said in a text message.

Legislative efforts

Kansas lawmakers last year included language in the state budget that would have blocked colleges from mandating “diversity statements” in hiring, but they were unable to override a veto of the policy from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Despite the veto, the universities responded anyway. Rolph said the board had universities examine their hiring processes and confirmed that no one is asking for “diversity statements” unless it is federally required or for a DEI job.

“We heard the Senate’s concerns, the Legislature’s concerns,” Rolph said in his confirmation hearing last month.

Wichita State University, Pittsburg State University and Emporia State University told The Star they made no changes because their policies were already consistent with state and federal law. The University of Kansas and Kansas State University did not respond to The Star’s request for comment.

But lawmakers say those statements are still in use and are now considering a bill that would penalize universities if they require applicants for positions, financial aid, or admission to agree to any statement affirming or opposing a particular ideology including but not limited to diversity, equity, inclusion and patriotism. The bill was written as model legislation by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy group.

Rep. Steven Howe, a Salina Republican and chair of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, said he introduced the bill because the Board of Regents had not instituted its own policy blocking the statements.

During a hearing last Wednesday, Howe pointed to a faculty posting in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Kansas that asked applicants to describe their experience with diverse communities and how that influences their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Such questions, he said, may violate the constitutional rights of applicants.

“It can stifle freedom of speech, it can limit academic freedom and it can limit our intellectual diversity and diversity of thoughts on our campus,” Howe said.

The Kansas Board of Regents warns the bill is overly broad, opening the door for candidates to sue colleges if they mention their own ideologies and then are not hired.

“I know there’s a concern about diversity equity and inclusion initiatives in Kansas higher education but I am concerned about the ambiguity in this initial statement,” Board of Regents President Blake Flanders said.

Potential litigation that could arise, he said, would distract colleges and divert funds away from the mission of educating Kansans.

In the fiscal note for the bill, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office indicated legal challenges to the policy itself were likely.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, tied the anti-DEI movement to broader efforts to “suppress history” by limiting teaching on racism within American history.

“We have to look at what it is we are doing and for what reason we are,” Ballard said. “To think that this is discriminatory. You’re upset about it being discriminatory? It was discriminatory years ago.”

Even if lawmakers still lack the votes to approve restrictions on DEI statements, they’re certain to use their power to continue pressuring universities to alter their practices in the area. During his confirmation hearing, conservative senators grilled Rolph on his approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, asking him to define the term and explain his commitment to it.

“In my experience it has become a racist issue,” Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican, said during the hearing.

Rolph responded that Kansas colleges are focused on seeing people as individuals and recognizing differences in experiences.

“For us in Kansas this isn’t about reverse racism,” Rolph said. “We have no practices that hold one race down to elevate another race. We really look for the best candidates.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said she was frustrated by the continued delays in Rolph’s reappointment.

“He knows what businesses are looking for and I think he’s in a good position to lead,” Sykes said, adding that those opposed to DEI can never seem to pinpoint what it is they dislike about it.

The Senate Education Committee ultimately allowed Rolph to move on to the full Senate with their favorable recommendation and Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, said she expected he would be confirmed to a second term. The full Senate could vote on Rolph’s confirmation anytime this legislative session.

Still, she expressed hope the conversations sent a message.

“I am very much against DEI and I want to be able to continue those conversations with Mr. Rolph,” Erickson said. “That’s really my concern, it has nothing to do with him personally.”

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