‘Bad for the Commonwealth:’ Session’s anti-DEI bill gets makeover, committee vote

Published 11:25 pm Thursday, March 14, 2024

FRANKFORT — An updated version of Bowling Green Republican Sen. Mike Wilson’s anti-DEI bill is one step closer to becoming law.

In an hours-long meeting Thursday evening, the House Education committee voted 13-3-2 to move Senate Bill 6 on to the House floor.

Democrat Reps. Tina Bojanowski, George Brown and Josie Raymond voted against the bill, while Reps. Kevin Jackson, R-Bowling Green, and Scott Lewis, R-Hartford, passed.

The latest version would require Kentucky’s public colleges and universities to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, offices and positions by July, among other wide-reaching provisions.

It adds in most of Waddy Republican Rep. Jennifer Decker’s House Bill 9, another anti-DEI bill filed this session.

Decker said the amended bill would “foster critical thinking and constructive dialogue” and allow Kentucky institutions to “return their focus to providing students with high-quality academic construction in an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all.”

What’s in the updated bill?

Senate Bill 6 defines DEI initiatives as those that promote or provide different treatment or benefits based on a person’s religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

Under SB6, none of these attributes could be used to provide different treatment or benefits in hiring, admissions, recruitment, promotion, contracts, housing, financial assistance or scholarships.

Institutions would not be able to require pledges asking about applicants’ views on or experience with religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

The bill would prohibit institutions from using any money, staff or other resources to maintain DEI offices, officers, training or initiatives. It would also ban any promotion or justification of “discriminatory concepts” outside of academic instruction.

Discriminatory concepts are defined as those “presenting as truth, rather than as a subject for inquiry, that an existing structure, system, or relation of power, privilege, or subordination persists on the basis of oppression, colonialism, socioeconomic status, religion, race, sex, color, or national origin.”

They also include concepts that justify or promote different treatment based on religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

Institutions would have until July to eliminate pre-existing DEI initiatives, offices and positions.

Academic courses primarily concerning diversity, equity and inclusion or “discriminatory concepts” would not count toward mandatory graduation requirements. Any degree programs that require such courses would be eliminated.

SB6 also raises the threshold for bias incident investigations. An institution could not conduct an investigation unless a student’s alleged conduct rose to student-on-student harassment—behavior so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies equal access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

Each year, the Council for Postsecondary Education would create a survey assessing intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity to be administered across Kentucky campuses.

Governing boards would also have to develop campus policies on viewpoint neutrality, banning discrimination based on political or social viewpoints. Institutions must also complete a series of reports, including several on historical employment of DEI officers.

The Attorney General would be able to sue institutions that do not comply, and individuals could file their own private lawsuits beginning in May 2025.

Committee discussion

Testimony from bill supporters and detractors was wide-ranging and often tense.

National representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, conservative think tanks, called in to share their concerns about the state of free speech on college campuses.

Drew Rosenberger of the Manhattan Institute said that DEI has targeted conservative views for “cancellation.”

“It scares students and professors into compliance lest they run beyond the latest politically incorrect frontier and have their futures threatened by liberal mobs,” Rosenberger said.

Michael Frazier, a prominent Kentucky First Amendment advocate, said campuses have problems with racism, queerphobia, harassment and discrimination, but DEI offices aren’t helping to fix them.

He argued that money allocated to DEI offices should be redirected to student resource centers, which he said serve students better. Decker agreed, and clarified that student resource centers are exempted from the bill’s provisions.

Bill opponents, however, believe that removing DEI officers would roll back progress.

“It will render higher education students less competitive in a global economy and it will have them be less educated than their peers,” said Felicia Nu’man of the Louisville Urban League. “This bill is bad for our students, it’s bad for higher education, it’s bad for the economy and it’s bad for the Commonwealth.”

DEI initiatives are key to reaching Kentucky’s goal of getting 60% of its working age population to earn “a credential that matters” by 2030, said Travis Powell, Council of Postsecondary Education vice president.

Since the 2012-13 academic year, he said that retention rates have improved significantly, particularly among underrepresented minorities and low-income students.

It’s difficult to get people in these populations into the workforce pipeline, and Powell worries that SB6 would limit further progress. DEI isn’t about any specific ideology or adherence to any side of the political spectrum, he said.

“It is simply finding folks from different backgrounds, marginalized backgrounds or any background they might be from and helping them to be more successful in their college pursuits,” Powell said.

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, asked Decker what exactly teachers wouldn’t be able to talk about under this bill. Decker said that the content isn’t the issue, but rather the inability of students to express contrary opinions.

“Teachers can teach anything they want on any topic. We hope they will. But they have to allow open and honest debate in the class,” Decker said. “…No class is banned. No books are banned. No concept is banned.”

SB6 could be held for a floor vote as early as Friday.