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Cox will ‘absolutely’ sign legislation eliminating DEI statements from university hiring

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to the media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Dec. 20, 2023.
Rick Egan
The Salt Lake Tribune, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to the media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Dec. 20, 2023.

Gov. Spencer Cox is taking aim at diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Utah’s public universities. In particular, the requirement that prospective job candidates sign DEI statements as part of the hiring process.

“I can assure you after this legislative session, it will not be happening here in the state of Utah,” he told reporters during his Dec. 20 monthly news conference. “These diversity statements that you have to sign to get hired, I think that is awful. I think it's bordering on evil, where we're forcing people into a political framework before they can even apply for a job from the state.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion statements might ask job seekers to say how they would promote and foster those values in an organization.

While Cox called diversity a “worthy goal” and inclusion “critical” to the state, he questioned the effectiveness of the programs.

I want to be very careful about how we talk about these things,” he said. “It's very easy to just fall into the polarized tropes around these types of things on both sides.”

To Cox, DEI requirements for hiring stifle intellectual diversity — something he believes should be a “priority for every college campus in the country.”

“If you really care about truth and the reasons that universities exist in the first place, not to be vessels for political correctness or sameness, but to be to be seeking truth and finding truth and allowing for debate … You have to have some intellectual diversity on campuses.”

His remarks come after university presidents from Harvard, Penn and MIT testified before Congress in early December about rising antisemitism and free speech on college campuses. The presidents were questioned about ideological diversity on their campuses and whether their institutions were doing enough to address antisemitic speech.

The issue has been a rallying cry for conservatives who believe DEI and affirmative action programs do the opposite of their intended purposes, and unfairly discriminate and foster ideological conformity.

Cox first addressed the issue during a virtual town hall meeting on Dec. 12 where he said that university diversity programs were doing “more to divide us than to bring us together.”

But not everyone sees the issue the same way.

“I'm not sure why the governor and some of the other ones feel that [DEI statements] are something bad,” said Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada & Utah. “What is wrong with cultivating a diverse, equitable and inclusive community, especially in places with a history of not being diverse or inclusive?”

Williams called recent efforts by lawmakers to target campus DEI initiatives a “political game.”

“What I see is that the legislators have a one-track mind that they want to do whatever they need to do, want to do, to get rid of DEI, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of who it's going to harm.”

State legislators have attempted to tackle the issue in the past with little success. A 2023 bill by Republican Sen. John Johnson would have prohibited DEI practices in higher education. That was eventually scaled back to a study before failing to make it out of a Senate committee.

Those efforts could have renewed momentum in 2024. Cox signaled he would sign a bill targeting DEI statements if it comes to his desk during the upcoming legislative session, but stopped short of advocating for the dismantling of DEI programs writ large.

I will absolutely sign that legislation,” he said. “But what does the rest of this look like? I want to figure that out. And those are the discussions that are happening right now.”

One of my first messages is we've got to figure out DEI, how to do it the right way, not the wrong way,” he added. “It may be what are we using that funding for? Is there something better we can use it for to actually get the outcomes that everybody is hoping for?”

For Williams, those discussions must include university presidents and DEI program directors if they are to be done in good faith.

“We need leaders that will engage with us and right these wrongs,” she said. “Getting rid of DEI doesn't do any of that. If there are criticisms to be made of that program, you know, let's do that. Don't just say we want to get rid of it. Let's try to improve it and not get rid of it.”

The 2024 Utah Legislative Session starts on Jan. 16.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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