Wilson’s anti-DEI bill concerning “discriminatory concepts” moves forward

Published 2:58 pm Thursday, February 8, 2024

A bill targeting so-called “discriminatory concepts” related to diversity, equity and inclusion moved forward in a committee vote Thursday morning.

What’s in the bill?

Senate Bill 6 bans public colleges or universities from discriminating against current or prospective students and employees based on their adherence or non-adherence to certain concepts.

These include the concepts that:

  • an individual is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive based on their race or sex, consciously or subconsciously;
  • an individual bears responsibility for past actions committed by members of their race or sex;
  • Kentucky or the U.S. are fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist; and
  • a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress another.

Under the bill, students and employees could not be penalized for refusing to endorse any of these and a variety of other concepts listed in the bill.

They would not have to adopt a specific ideology or political viewpoint to be eligible for admission, employment or any other benefit.

Mandatory trainings could not include any “discriminatory concepts.”

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said that he is sponsoring Senate Bill 6 to stop an alleged trend of ideologically-based exclusion in higher education.

Wilson shared fears of diversity statements serving as “litmus tests” in hiring processes, effectively requiring “applicants to show allegiance to a particular set of politically liberal beliefs.”

“Diversity of thought should be welcomed in higher education,” Wilson said. “But what we have seen is a trend across the United States forcing faculty, in order to remain employed, to formally endorse a set of beliefs that may be contrary to their own, all in violation of the First Amendment.”

Committee substitute

A new version of SB6 was introduced Thursday. The approved committee substitute adds several provisions.

First, it changes the label for the listed concepts from “divisive concepts” to “discriminatory concepts.”

Second, it adds a section on new student orientations. Universities that have new student orientations must include a few more items in the curriculum:

  • the full text of the First Amendment, including a discussion on the importance of free speech and viewpoint diversity;
  • historical examples demonstrating the need to protect free speech, “including unpopular speech;”
  • the university’s policies to protect free speech, as outline in this bill; and
  • written and verbal notice that if there is an issue, the Kentucky Attorney General can sue universities in civil court over a violation of this bill.

Third, public universities must publicly post course descriptions, syllabi and the title of each book assigned or recommended for each class.

Fourth, any employee hired as part of a diversity initiative must spend at least half their time mentoring and providing academic coaching and related activities to help Pell Grant eligible students succeed.

The final change would require a campus wide survey of students and employees in 2025 and 2027 to determine their diversity of thought and  comfort level in speaking freely on campus.

Committee commentary

Rebekah Keith shared her experience interviewing for an RA position at the University of Kentucky. She said that during the process, she was asked what her pronouns were and where she “had seen injustice and mistreatment at UK.”

Keith said that she believes that there are only two genders. When she didn’t get the position, she received feedback.

“I was told that because I am white presenting I probably had not had to think about how I present myself unlike other non white students,” she said.

She also talked about a class where she expressed her conservative beliefs about gender, and was subsequently emailed by the professor that her behavior did not respect the humanity of all the students, and thus was a violation of the Student Code of Conduct.

Kiera Gray of the Louisville Urban League testified against the bill.

“This bill does nothing to improve academic standards, increase critical thinking or expand the diversity of thought on college campuses,” Gray said. “Instead, it opens the door to the unregulated flow of narrow-minded ideologies that seek to marginalize, rather than to include, and silence, rather than discuss.”

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, called the bill a “fundamental misunderstanding” of DEI, which he said is intended to make college campuses “more reflective of society” by giving more minorities an opportunity to get an education, pursue a career and be integrated into the American social fabric.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, called it “anti-intellectual” while voting on the bill.

“We are in the midst of racism and it’s painful for everybody and we must struggle together and individually to free ourselves from this malady,” he said. “But to begin to create constructs that either suppress and do not ameliorate the situation? What can I say? No.”

The bill passed 11-2, and now moves to the Senate floor.

Sen. Danny Carroll commented on the similarity of the arguments for and against the bill, which both revolved around free speech and the First Amendment.

“I think we all want everyone to be comfortable in our colleges and universities with their education, to be comfortable on campus, to be treated with respect, to be treated fairly,” Carroll said.

“We all want the same thing, but because of extremes on both sides it’s getting harder and harder to accomplish that. And it’s frustrating.”