As college DEI spending surges, buildings neglected

Higher Education

Ray Carter | December 15, 2023

As college DEI spending surges, buildings neglected

Ray Carter

In February, Oklahoma’s public colleges reported spending at least $83.4 million on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) programs and personnel over the last decade. Those expenditures included funding for drag-queen performances, a program on fostering “Trans and Non‐Binary Resilience,” so-called “antiracist” training, and a presentation on “Black Jesus.”

To the degree that spending in one area means less money for other uses, lawmakers got a glimpse of one potential indirect impact of Oklahoma colleges’ DEI focus during a recent budget hearing. State colleges are now asking for an additional $200 million to repair or demolish neglected buildings across the state.

Allison Garrett, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, told lawmakers the $200 million will cover only a small share of the total cost of addressing building neglect across state college campuses.

She said Oklahoma’s colleges and universities have $1.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs.

A budget document presented to lawmakers by the regents declared, “Deferred maintenance and capital needs are present at every system institution.”

Garrett also said the system has $26 million in facilities “that we would love to demolish,” but said colleges will need additional funding to cover the cost of simply tearing down those structures. The state is currently paying for insurance coverage for those buildings, which are not in use.

“It may cost a million or two just to demolish, safely, a facility,” Garrett said.

The neglect of campus facilities has occurred despite rapid increases in state appropriations to Oklahoma colleges in recent years.

In the 2019 state budget year, Oklahoma colleges received $776.7 million in state appropriations. That spending surged 29 percent to just over $1 billion this year, and officials are now asking for another $322 million next year, which includes the $200 million in “one time” funding for deferred maintenance.

State Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, expressed frustration with colleges’ handling of campus infrastructure, noting that elsewhere far older facilities than those in Oklahoma are still in use.

“I went to a school that was built in 1787, and there’s still some buildings there,” Pugh noted.

Pugh also noted that the state of Oklahoma received billions of dollars in federal bailout money through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a substantial share of which went to state colleges and universities. During the process of spending that money, he noted higher education officials did not mention deferred maintenance needs.

“What I got was requests to build new things instead of requests to fix existing things like this,” Pugh said. “And I’ll be honest, that’s frustrating for me to see pictures of things that are dilapidated that should have been what I considered to be priorities and instead in five years I’m going to travel around and see new buildings.”

Higher education officials said federal regulations prevented them from using ARPA funds for capital improvements.

Approximately $11 billion in federal bailout funding was dumped into the state of Oklahoma via the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) after accounting for money going to everything from private citizens to state government to local governments to other organizations. That spending is believed to be a major contributor to the decades-high rate of inflation that has since occurred.

State lawmakers had direct oversight of $1.8 billion in federal ARPA bailout funds.

“Nobody should find sewage pipe with poop flowing on the outside of it acceptable for a state building,” Pugh said, referencing a photo shared with the committee by higher education officials. “But no one ever said, ‘Hey, we need $50,000 to fix our sewer and water infrastructure.’”

The degree to which spending on DEI personnel and programming has diverted money from other uses remains difficult to pin down, in part because some colleges have begun labeling as “DEI” programs and expenses that pre-dated and are unrelated to DEI, such as complying with federal laws regarding handicap access.

But records show that colleges have also reported dramatically increasing their annual spending on DEI personnel and programs as DEI has become more of a fad and way to virtue signal in academia.

In the 2014-2015 school year, Oklahoma colleges and universities reported spending $6.2 million on DEI staff and programs. By the 2022-2023 school year, that number had surged 63 percent to $10.1 million annually.

This week, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order that requires state agencies and institutions of higher education to review DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures, and programs to eliminate and dismiss non-critical personnel.

The order also restricts schools’ ability to spend money on DEI programs that grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin over another’s.

On X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Stitt noted that money spent on DEI is effectively diverted from more productive uses.

“No more six-figure salaries for DEI staff,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma tax dollars will fund our students’ education, not DEI bureaucracies. My executive order makes it clear: resources need to be redirected towards initiatives that directly contribute to academic and career success.”

During the budget hearing, Garrett said 11 Oklahoma colleges and universities have staff whose titles or job descriptions include the word “diversity.”

Coinciding with the recent increase in DEI emphasis in Oklahoma colleges, the number of students expected to attend state colleges is now predicted to decline despite continued state population growth.

A budget document provided to lawmakers by the Regents states that Oklahoma’s college system “must adapt to demographic changes in Oklahoma’s high school-to-college pipeline over the next decade, with projected enrollment declines” now expected.

Signs of that trend already exist at the University of Oklahoma, where a near-majority of incoming freshmen are no longer from the state of Oklahoma.

In fall 2021, just 53 percent of OU freshmen were Oklahoma residents. Just 53 percent of OU freshmen were Oklahoma residents in fall 2022. By fall 2023, the share of OU freshmen who were Oklahoma residents had fallen further to 51.6 percent.

While DEI programs are often touted as necessary to attract students from a wide range of backgrounds to Oklahoma colleges, Garrett tacitly admitted that a diverse student body would be the norm on campuses across Oklahoma even if no DEI programs existed because of Oklahoma’s existing demographics.

“The last time we took a look, which was last spring, we were at 11 of our 25 institutions that were majority non-white in the undergraduate student bodies,” Garrett said.

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit]

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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