Education

As anti-DEI law takes effect, students and staffers share ‘great sense of loss’

More schools eliminate their DEI offices and some go beyond HB261’s parameters to comply with the law

By: Alixel Cabrera, Utah News Dispatch

Even before Elise Djagba learned the term “diversity, equity and inclusion,” she knew about the profound impact such programs had in her life. She saw the results every day in her life and the path her family forged after her father, Ben Koffi Djagba, arrived in Utah as a refugee.

Her father fled Togo, West Africa, escaping a civil war and making a stop for a few years in Burkina Faso, until he found refuge in the United States. Her mom, Marie Djagba, who is Malian, also moved to the U.S. searching for educational opportunities. It was in the Beehive State where they met through friends in college, and where Elise was later born.

Through the Utah Refugee Center, her father received help to learn English and through a diversity program to use a computer on his own; a fundamental skill that allowed him to pursue his college career, Djagba said. That inspired her advocacy for Black students in her Salt Lake City private high school.

“My initial spark comes from my father because he worked for Catholic Community Services for nearly a decade, and he helped hundreds of refugee families become established and comfortable in Utah,” Djagba said. “So watching him do that when I was a kid allowed me to realize that people from different backgrounds deserve to feel welcomed and integrated into our community.”

Decades after his arrival, she was found in her Judge Memorial High School uniform at Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s monthly news conference broadcast by PBS, telling that story and asking how the state would continue to support diverse students like herself as a new law restricting diversity, equity and inclusion programs is enacted.

Elise Djagba, 17, poses for a photo with her mother, Marie Djagba, and father, Ben Koffi Djagba, at their home in West Valley City on Sunday, June 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

HB261, or the Equal Opportunities Initiative, is scheduled to become law on Monday. It restricts diversity programs in all public entities — such as DEI statements in hiring and certain trainings — and bans the words “diversity, equity and inclusion” from ever being in a public office’s name. Though identity-based cultural centers are still allowed under the law as long as they aren’t exclusive, some schools have decided to part ways with them in advance.

Cox told Djagba he would work closely with the Board of Higher Education to secure resources for students who are struggling.

“I want to be very clear this is not about removing resources that would help students like you,” Cox said. “It’s about making sure that we have resources to help all students who need that help and that belonging and that success.”

The answer, reiterating what the law wouldn’t eliminate, left a bigger question in Djagba’s mind; would this be just the beginning of tougher measures?

“Changing the language around diversity, equity and inclusion, how we talk about it on school campuses, this can just lead to diversity, equity and inclusion conversations being limited completely,” she said. “And that makes me wonder how conversations regarding diversity, equity and inclusion will look like in 10 years once this bill is implemented, and if they will exist consistently at all in 10 years.”

A post-HB261 college experience

Elise Djagba, 17, poses for a photo at her home in West Valley City on Sunday, June 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

“It just leads to conversations being less direct regarding diversity. And without being fully direct, how can that foundation be laid in the first place to allow everybody to feel welcomed and integrated into our community?” – Elise Djagba

During her time in Judge Memorial High School, Djagba served as her school’s Black Student Union president and created the role of officer of diversity, equity and inclusion in the student body.

In those roles, she led conversations about how Black students should be treated equally and organized events for educational opportunities, or just for fun with other Black students throughout the valley. Those weren’t necessarily exclusive, she said.

“We try to get like anybody to go to (Black Student Union) meetings,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re Black. I just want you to come and learn and just feel welcomed.”

But, though similar programs in public schools may not have to shut down, she believes passing an anti-DEI bill will limit conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion in statewide campuses.

“It just leads to conversations being less direct regarding diversity. And without being fully direct, how can that foundation be laid in the first place to allow everybody to feel welcomed and integrated into our community?” she questioned.

This fall, Djagba is planning on attending the University of Utah where she’ll major in either political science or journalism. She wonders, in a post-HB261 college environment, whether she’ll feel alienated.

“I’d say I’m fairly vocal about the issues that I see in our society. So it makes me wonder if I’ll be able to continue being vocal on my college campus like I have been for the past four years, and if I’ll be able to create change on my campus effectively without further pushback,” she said.

A great sense of loss

Brandon Flores, the executive director for belonging at Weber State University, poses for a photo in his office at the school’s campus in Ogden on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

There is a grieving process, and there is the feeling among staff that we’re being policed, that we’re being almost spied on with this new hotline that folks can call. And it’s unfair. – Brandon Kaleo Flores

Brandon Kaleo Flores’ title is going from being the executive director for belonging at Weber State University to executive director for student retention and success. With the school’s closure of cultural centers, the roles of his staff are also scheduled to change.

For Flores, this is a big shift. He has dedicated most of his academic career to programs that help marginalized students — including those experiencing homelessness, refugees, anyone coming from the foster care system, and men of color — succeed in a college setting.

He, as a half Filipino student, had gravitated toward multicultural centers while attending Snow College and Weber State University, finding safe spaces and belonging “not only because of my own culture, I wanted to find folks that I could identify with but also folks that I didn’t identify with,” he said.

Weber State is implementing one of the most aggressive compliance routes to the new law. Though Flores said he supports the new system, he still rejects the concept that led to the passing of HB261.

“I absolutely don’t agree with many of what I feel are assumptions and about the work that we do in the offices and programs,” Flores said. “I believe that our politicians need to do a better job at meeting our students and our staff who have been engaged in this work where they’re at.”

In his view, politicians have been “a little bit out of touch,” ignoring data that proves DEI work has had an impact on bridging the gap in higher education among marginalized communities, including at-risk communities.

Not once during the passage of the bill, Flores said, did a politician walk through his office doors and engage at a real “human-to-human” level.

Brandon Flores, the executive director for belonging at Weber State University, poses for a photo in his office at the school’s campus in Ogden on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

“It’s unfair to cast labels and judgment upon an area based on a lot of assumptions in my mind, in my opinion, and false notions about the work that we do,” he said.

There’s a great sense of loss when it comes to the quality of the work his division is allowed to do, he said. It’s a job that benefits everyone, has allowed marginalized students to have safe spaces “without feeling like they’re under a microscope,” and wasn’t exclusionary at Weber State.

In a way, he added, it looks like the future of his office will be constantly “overanalyzed in this hypersensitive climate that has been created.”

“There is a grieving process, and there is the feeling among staff that we’re being policed, that we’re being almost spied on with this new hotline that folks can call,” Flores said. “And it’s unfair.”

Still, Flores added, he’d welcome any lawmakers to interact with staff and students who work in a DEI-adjacent office in schools.

“We’re going to continue to have meaningful impact on the lives of students that we serve — and that is all students. And we’re not going to let any of this rob us of our joyous spirit,” Flores said. “We’ll adjust, we’ll adapt like we always have in the face of adversity. But that doesn’t mean we agree with the ideology that has led up to the passing of this.”

How public colleges and universities plan to comply with HB261

University of Utah

To comply with the new law, the University of Utah had scheduled back in April to eliminate its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office come July 1. But, in late June, the state’s flagship university announced it would also shut down its Women’s and it LGBT resource centers.

The idea, according to a news release, is to centralize student resources into two new entities; the Center for Student Access and Resources (for scholarship cohort coordination, advising, and mental health and wellness services referrals) and the Community and Cultural Engagement Center (for “cultural education, celebration, engagement and awareness”).

“As we’ve evaluated how best to comply with the legislation, I want to be clear that we’ve faced very difficult decisions,” Vice President for Student Affairs Lori McDonald said in a statement. “The law and subsequent guidance require a foundational change in how we approach student support, and we will follow the law. This isn’t about changing the words we use; we’re changing how we approach the work.”

The American Indian Resource Center will remain in place, continuing to work with tribal nations, including the Ute Indian Tribe. The University has an agreement with the tribe which allows its athletics teams to use the name “Utes,” while the U. provides support to Ute Indian students and “annual financial support to the Tribe and other support to enhance K-12 education at Fort Duchesne.” However, the center will be renamed the Center for Native Excellence and Tribal Engagement.

The Black Cultural Center building at Fort Douglas will also “remain open as a community gathering space.”

Weber State University

By Monday Weber State University is scheduled to have eliminated its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Division, apart from all of its identity-based centers — for Black, Native, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ+, women and undocumented students.

This approach, along with the University of Utah’s, is one of the most aggressive a school has taken so far. Technically, under HB261, cultural centers are still allowed, only if they don’t make any exclusions.

“I was challenged by one faculty member who said, ‘well, how can you have inclusion if it’s invisible?’” the school’s president, Brad Mortensen told the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee in May. He hopes state universities and colleges are able to revisit the policies in a couple of years and evaluate outcomes. “We’re taking the brave optimist approach and trying to do it within the bounds of the law.”

Nobody who worked in the university’s EDI area will lose their jobs, but they’ll get new job titles and revised duties, Bryan Magaña, Weber State’s public relations director said on Thursday. Most of the staff will be directed to the Student Success Center the school launched in 2023.

“The way forward involves serving students on a more personal level, based on who they are as a person rather than broad identity categories that don’t always speak to each individual’s unique skills and challenges,” Magaña said in an email.

Though this may represent a shift for some, he said, the new approach is true to the university’s “personal touch in education.”

Utah State University

Programs from Utah State University’s Inclusion Center will be reorganized within the school’s Academic Enterprise. And, its student clubs will be moved to the Student Involvement and Leadership center.

The Latinx Cultural Center and a proposed Native American Cultural Center “will be reviewed and adjusted so that they are in full compliance with HB261 and the Utah System of Higher Education’s new policy on cultural centers.”

Jane Irungu, the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, changed titles, and is now a special adviser to the school’s president, Elizabeth Cantwell. Irungu is expected to “build and expand new programs in a way that expands access and opportunity for all members of our campus community,” according to an email to students, staff and faculty from president Cantwell.

Other support services offered by the Inclusion Center will be directed to a central student support services office.

“As we make the changes to adjust our approach to student support and inclusive excellence, we will build on the foundation established by the Inclusion Center and carry forward a commitment to making sure USU is a space where everyone feels they belong and the success of all students is championed,” Cantwell said in the email.

Utah Valley University

Utah Valley University closed its Office of Inclusion and Diversity early this year when HB261 passed. The resources went to a new Office of Institutional Engagement and Effectiveness.

Now, following guidelines from the Utah System of Higher Education, UVU is adjusting some campus organizations, with most identity-based centers consolidating into one central student success center, Scott Trotter, senior director of public relations, said in an email.

“Affected employees will be given the option to be reassigned and some employee training will be rewritten,” Trotter said.

Salt Lake Community College

Salt Lake Community College’s division of Institutional Equity, Inclusion and Transformation closed, and its staff was moved to other areas in the college, including administrative divisions, and other departments that deal with student affairs and student development and success.

The vice president of the former division, Juone Kadiri, was also transferred to the school’s People and Workplace Culture office.

Additionally, the school’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs changed its name to  Student Engagement, Experience, and Achievement.

“Our commitment to supporting, advocating and celebrating the multicultural experiences of all our students will continue through holistic approaches within the Dream Center, Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center, and the Student Involvement and Culture Center (formerly the Student Involvement Center),” the website of the newly-established center reads.

Southern Utah University

Because programming, offices and initiatives can’t be based on identity characteristics, Southern Utah University closed its Center for Diversity and Inclusion and its Q Center — which provided resources for LGBTQ+ people on campus.

“The expanded Student Outreach and Support office will take on the role of assessing individualized student needs and offering resources,” according to a legislative updates website from SUU.

But, any club wishing to remain sponsored by the university must be open to all students and have an educational focus,

“By July 1, 2024, Southern Utah University, like all member institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education, must revise institutional practices and policies compliant with new state legislation. In all of the updates, our highest priority is the well-being and success of our students and employees,” Brooke Heath, the school’s public relations director, said in an email.

On the legislative updates, SUU also offered guidance to faculty and students. The school advises staff to direct students in need of support to different resource centers, including its Student Outreach and Support office, its counseling and psychological services, disability resource center, and its office of equal opportunity and Title IX.

The school also “may regulate an employee’s speech when the employee is engaged in institutional speech or when such speech is representative of the University’s position,” the website reads, as the law requires public universities to maintain neutrality on “political, social or unsettled issues that do not directly relate to the University’s mission, role, or pedagogical objectives.”

Particularly, according to the website, the school may not assert a position or opinion on: anti-racism, bias, critical race theory, implicit bias, intersectionality, prohibited discriminatory practices, or racial privilege.

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