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The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

University Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs become target for conservative politics

Cutting DEI programs could jeopardize $157 million in federal funding, $225 million in student aid.
Cody Blissett
An empty podium is seen during the annual Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday, July 28, 2023.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in higher education have become a target for conservative lawmakers.

These programs, which promote a sense of belonging for and understanding of historically marginalized communities in higher education, are currently under evaluation by the state Board of Regents, which governs Iowa’s three public universities.

The evaluation comes after Iowa Republican lawmakers made the state’s DEI programs the target of two bills seeking to evaluate and eliminate university DEI programs.

If DEI-banning legislation were to pass — like Senate File 81 introduced by state Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville — it could jeopardize $157 million in federal grants and $225 million in federal student aid for the University of Iowa, according to data provided by the UI’s division of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Although Study Bill 218, and another like it, failed in the Iowa Legislature, the regents announced in March that they will conduct a study of the DEI programs at public universities in Iowa. During this time, the universities have paused the formation of new DEI programs and the hiring of DEI staff.

The regents’ diversity, equity, and inclusion study group is set to announce its findings in a November meeting. The scope and nature of the survey and investigation have not been publicly disclosed.

RELATED: State Board of Regents launch survey to collect community feedback.

The conservative attack on DEI programs is not isolated to the Hawkeye state — in fact, 22 other states have introduced similar legislation.

While university officials say DEI programs provide diverse points of view and ensure an active exchange of different ideas on campus, GOP state lawmakers nationwide have called for cutting initiatives because the curriculum “indoctrinates” students and prompts “anti-white” racism.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 40 bills targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have been introduced within 22 states, including Iowa. Meanwhile, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas are the only states in which anti-DEI bills have been signed into law.

Sharonda Woodford, a visiting professor at Drake University in Des Moines, whose research focuses on race, gender, and sexuality, said the anti-DEI legislation advanced by conservative lawmakers across the nation may be because those opposed to DEI programs and efforts believe they provide an unfair advantage.

“It’s just correcting an ill that the United States has participated in for a long time, by excluding different voices from the table…  political tables, from educational tables, from jobs,” she said. “It’s a way of trying to correct wrong.”

DEI ingrained in all aspects of the UI

Liz Tovar, the UI executive officer and associate vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, said because DEI is embedded into all facets of university life, she believes the regents are looking into every aspect at the university.

“If you look at every single one of our colleges, they have to abide by things, such as accreditation and compliance,” Tovar said.

The regents’ pause on the formation of new DEI programs and the hiring of employees for the Division of DEI has concerned Tovar, she said. With these pauses, the UI must encourage DEI staff that remain with the university to continue to follow federal regulations.

For students, Tovar said, DEI programming prepares students to enter the workforce, ensuring students can engage with a diversity of thought and a robust exchange of ideas once they graduate college.

She said many of Iowa’s largest employers actively recruit a diverse workforce and businesses want to make sure that individuals they hire are able to interact with people who are different from them.

“We exist to help prepare the next generation of students who are graduating from our university to go out and be able to work in a globally diverse society and workforce,” Tovar said. “And in order to do that, regardless of what industry you choose to work in, you’re going to need to learn how to work with people who you may not agree with.”

DEI programs help students ‘feel seen’

“Everyone at the UI has a place in diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Tovar said. It’s important that people think of it in a broad sense. DEI programming includes not just race, but political affiliation, disability, or being a first-generation college student.

Ultimately, Tovar said these initiatives are about access to education and opportunity for people on the UI campus.

“We want to make sure that we’re opening up doors to every single person here at the University of Iowa, and that they have the opportunity to be successful here,” Tovar said.

Cielo Herrera, a UI second-year student, is the Undergraduate Student Government Latine Constituency Senator at the UI. Herrera has found that marginalized groups can be intimidated by the UI being a predominantly white institution.

The UI enrollment number for white, non-Hispanic students stands at 23,480, which makes up 74.9 percent of total enrollment. The Hispanic or Latinx rate is the second-highest rate of enrollment by ethnicity with 7.9 percent, which is 2,481 students.

“As a student of color, I think entering a campus like this is sometimes intimidating,” she said. “When you walk into a class and there is nobody that looks like you, that can be scary, especially for some of these students that have lived in highly diverse neighborhoods to come to a little bit more secluded area like Iowa City.”

Herrera said she has found a feeling of familiarity and safety with the DEI efforts that are in place on campus.

“From what I’ve experienced, these DEI initiatives help bring other students of color and students of other marginalized identities together,” Herrera said. “Those really helped to create a community in which they feel safe and comfortable, and where they can find people that they have similarities with.”

Amiritha Kumar, the USG Asian American Pacific Islander Deci American Constituency senator, echoed the same feelings as Herrera. Kumar said DEI allows the API population to be seen and affirm their place on campus.

The enrollment rate at the UI for Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students is 5 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.

“I know coming from a small town, for me personally, to know that there were specific efforts being taken for people that look like me to feel seen and to have a specific place where our voices are heard; just seeing that it was something that was of importance to [UI students] was very uplifting and motivating,” Kumar said.

Tovar said she wants to work on ways to better communicate to the UI campus that DEI programs, events, and activities are for anyone, regardless of a person’s background or how they identify on campus.

Risks of cutting DEI

If diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are cut, some said the UI stands to lose students who have found comfort and belonging from these programs on campus, and hundreds of millions in funding provided by the federal government that include DEI requirements.

Herrera said limiting DEI initiatives will affect the population of Latine/x/o/a students on campus because these programs help to bring students in and find a community, friends, and people they can talk to.

“If we’re looking at the big picture, the university is trying to retain students … cutting these initiatives, they’re only going to lose students,” Herrera said. “You’re only going to have students who feel more lonely, less connected, or less engaged in school in general.”

Woodford said she fears that limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives can lead to a regression in our society.

“If we were to limit these programs, the DEI programs, it’s a regression of our politics, it’s a regression of our society,” Woodford said. “And we’re trying to move forward, we’re trying to correct some wrongs and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Herrera said other people can have misconceptions about DEI initiatives, but to her, it’s not about promoting anti-white racism or other misconceptions.

“They’ve benefitted me, and they’ve benefitted the constituents that I represent,” Herrera said. “For me at least, DEI initiatives are about making kids feel safe, making them feel included and a part
of a community.”

To continue to bring in a diverse range of students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds, Tovar said diversity, equity, and inclusion must be acknowledged.

“The number one reason why it’s so important is that research and education are improved by diversity of thought and a robust exchange of ideas,” Tovar said. “ … If Iowa is to remain a leading research institution, we need to attract, engage, and retain faculty, staff, and students from a variety of backgrounds to ensure that we have a great exchange of ideas.”

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About the Contributors
Natalie Miller
Natalie Miller, Politics Reporter
Natalie Miller is a second-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to her position as a Politics Reporter, Natalie was a News Reporter focusing on Higher Education.
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.