- Arkansas lawmakers grilled representatives from six public colleges and schools on their diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices during a subcommittee meeting Monday.
- Leaders from six institutions — the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, the University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and its law school — addressed questions about DEI and student success, often highlighting that the work done by diversity offices extended beyond race and ethnicity.
- But Republican legislators expressed concern that DEI on college campuses allows accreditors and outside forces to unduly influence academics in the state.
Across the country, mostly conservative state lawmakers have been attacking DEI policies and programs at colleges. Wisconsin lawmakers cut spending for the state’s public university system by $32 million — the amount they estimated it spent on DEI — though they said college officials could still receive the money if they spent it on workforce development. Meanwhile, Texas and Florida have outright banned DEI spending at public colleges.
The Arkansas Legislative Council's higher education subcommittee, which serves a fact-finding panel for the state's General Assembly, recently surveyed public institutions on how they incorporate DEI into their strategic planning and policies.
During Monday's meeting, Republican state Sen. Dan Sullivan, co-chair of the subcommittee, argued that DEI work seems to put students in boxes and define them solely based on their gender, race or ethnicity.
College leaders pushed back on that assertion.
They highlighted DEI work that extended beyond those characteristics and focused on underrepresented groups, like veterans or first-generation college students.
Charles Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System, used students from rural areas as an example. When those students come to Jonesboro, where the Arkansas State flagship is located, they have a different experience than students who come from the state's more urban areas.
"It's a big town for them, and they're homesick," he said. "That student needs a different level of support than a student who's coming from Little Rock and thinks it's a really rural area."
Sullivan lauded representatives from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville for reducing DEI work on their campus. In June, the Arkansas flagship announced it would dissolve its DEI office and redistribute the employees and resources across five other departments.
But the office’s elimination does not mean the institution is abandoning all equity work. For example, the University of Arkansas was the only survey respondent to include DEI materials in its first-year orientation.
The University of Arkansas remains committed to having its student body reflect the state as a whole, said Randy Massanelli, the university's vice chancellor for governmental and community relations. And there's still work to be done.
For instance, 4% of the University of Arkansas’ student body is Black or African American, though this group makes up about 15% of the state’s population.
"The students over the years have gotten more affluent and more White, quite honestly," Massanelli said. "And that's not representative of Arkansas."
State Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a Democrat, asked each group of college representatives if their institutions had opted not to admit a White student so they could instead accept a student from an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group.
Each said no, asserting that students must meet the same standards to be admitted.
The Arkansas Legislature is expected to continue discussing DEI in academics moving forward.
In August, Sullivan requested a separate study of DEI policies at the state's colleges to be completed by the end of 2024. Chesterfield supported the motion.
At the time, Sullivan indicated he intended to introduce related legislation following the study's conclusion, though he did not provide further details.