Ray Carter | October 19, 2023
Experts warn Oklahoma college DEI programs likely illegal
In recent years colleges across the nation, including in Oklahoma, have incorporated “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programming throughout the college experience.
But at a legislative study this week, experts from across the country warned Oklahoma lawmakers that those programs are likely illegal and could create significant financial liability for the state.
“DEI is expensive. It’s counterproductive. And it’s often unlawful,” said Adam Kissel, visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
James Lindsay, a professor and national expert on Critical Race Theory (CRT), DEI, and similar topics, noted the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equality under the law—and that “equity” is a goal that often undermines equal treatment since equity requires outcomes in proportion to the population share of any identity group.
In practice, that means discrimination against some groups and special treatment for others based on race or other identity factors.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down race-based admissions at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, which both discriminated against Asian and white applicants to boost student numbers from other groups, he said many DEI programs are now on shaky legal ground.
“Equity violates the 14th Amendment and the lawsuits will come,” Lindsay said.
State Sen. Rob Standridge, a Norman Republican who requested the study, said DEI is “really destroying our higher ed institutions and it’s really hurting both our faculty and our students.”
“DEI, much as it sounds good, is not good,” Standridge said. “And I think we’re seeing that around the country.”
Allison Garrett, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, told lawmakers that Oklahoma colleges are forced to impose DEI requirements because it has become a condition of accreditation for schools.
For example, Garrett’s presentation said the American Association of Colleges of Nursing now requires college programs to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nursing curriculum to receive accreditation, while the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission requires that curriculum in engineering programs boost awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion beginning with the 2025-26 cycle. The NCAA requires athletic programs to complete an equity, diversity, and inclusion review at least once every four years.
She noted that some forms of student financial aid are not available to individuals attending non-accredited schools.
But other experts indicated the DEI emphasis of accreditation entities does not mandate much of what occurs on college campuses today.
“Although it is true that accreditors have DEI standards, and you saw some of them posted, those standards don’t require DEI officers,” said Adam Kissel, visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “They don’t require DEI offices. And they don’t define DEI in such a way that a university has to define it in terms of race or underrepresented groups in most cases.”
When Texas lawmakers restricted DEI programs at state universities, officials soon found that colleges could meet accreditation standards by focusing on diversity of ideas, he said.
“If you really want to play the DEI game, the most underrepresented group in Oklahoma colleges and universities today are conservative, Republican faculty members,” Kissel said.
Instead, colleges are hiring non-teaching staff to impose various DEI ideological requirements on students and staff, including measures such as requiring those applying for professorships to provide a DEI statement, therefore weeding out many mainstream applicants.
“The average school has more than 45 people devoted to DEI, which is more than the average number of history professors,” said Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute.
A 2021 report by the Heritage Foundation showed that for every one Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) staff member at the University of Oklahoma, there were 4.4 DEI personnel, the 24th highest ratio among 65 universities studied.
Oklahoma State University had the 23rd highest ratio for DEI-staff-to-history faculty. OSU had 26 DEI dedicated personnel, compared to 17 history professors.
“DEI is the fastest-growing segment of the educational bureaucracy,” Shapiro said.
Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute, noted that Oklahoma State University currently requires all students to take a diversity course, and that the OSU website states that diversity courses are those that “emphasize one or more socially constructed groups (e.g. racial, ethnic, religious, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation) in the United States,” and that the goal of those courses must be to “critically analyze historical and contemporary examples of socially constructed groups in American society and the distribution of political, economic and/or cultural benefits and opportunities afforded to these groups …”
“Every student, as a condition of obtaining a degree from the university, is forced to spend time and tuition dollars on DEI and related courses,” Beienburg said.
He noted the language of the OSU course description comes from Critical Race Theory and other Marxist-derived theories. And the course has little to do with true diversity.
“You see nothing about diversity of thought, intellectual diversity, viewpoint diversity,” Beienburg said.
Beienburg said lawmakers could prohibit state colleges from making DEI courses a requirement for graduation, noting such graduation requirements effectively force students to subsidize DEI programs on campus.
Data presented by Garrett suggests Oklahoma colleges that embrace DEI policies could quickly run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Harvard case.
Demographic data presented by Garrett indicated that students of Asian descent are overrepresented in Oklahoma colleges compared to their share of the K-12 population. Under “diversity, equity, and inclusion” policies, colleges are expected to impose requirements that will drive down the number of Asian students to boost the share of other groups, such as Hispanics, to match the demographics of the general population.
Even with the Oklahoma Constitution’s restrictions on lawmakers’ control of funding for specific colleges or college programs, Kissel said legislators could make it illegal for colleges to have programs that treat students differently based on race or other similar factors.
Although DEI policies are touted as a way to expose students to a wider range of people, Garrett’s data also indicated that would happen even if DEI policies did not exist. She reported that 46% of students in Oklahoma colleges today are already nonwhite.
And Jonathan Butcher, senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, said DEI policies do not achieve the goals touted by DEI supporters.
“Do we have evidence that DEI programs are furthering the effort of preparing individuals to go off into the world to become better citizens and productive in the workplace?” Butcher said. “And the answer is no.”
Studies have consistently found no measurable impact from diversity programs or even negative impacts, he noted.
Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, encouraged lawmakers to address the problem of DEI in state colleges by repurposing money that currently goes to higher education and instead directing it to programs that provide specific academic benefit.
For example, he called on lawmakers to create an “Oklahoma Workforce Needs” fund within the Oklahoma Department of Commerce that would help students pay for college degree programs in high-need areas.
Such a program could provide students with $10,000 a year towards tuition and fees if they enroll in a STEM program.
Money for that program could come from redirecting the share of funding currently spent on DEI programs at state colleges. Oklahoma’s public colleges spent at least $83.4 million on DEI programs and personnel over the last decade, including $10.1 million in the most recent school year.
Rather than allowing DEI policies to continue, officials told lawmakers there are better ways to address the inequities that exist among various groups. Small said a continued focus on providing school choice in the K-12 realm will allow more minority students to obtain a quality education that allows them to later succeed in college.
Small noted just 6% of Oklahoma high-school seniors were prepared for study in college science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to the results of ACT testing. The share of minority students who are STEM ready may be even lower.
“If you happen to be one of the African-American children that is in Oklahoma City or Tulsa public schools, where often less than 5% of you are proficient in math and science and reading, you are not going to enroll in the College of Engineering at OU,” Small said.
And officials noted that racial inequities have little to do with government policy and much to do with family support.
“For professional and academic success, the overwhelming variable, which nobody is allowed to talk about, is having a stable home with two parents,” Lindsay said. “It washes out every other variable. Having a stable neighborhood environment is the next biggest variable. That’s it. There’s no mention of sex. There’s no mention of race. There’s no mention of sexuality necessary. Having a stable, two-parent home is the overwhelming variable.”
[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]
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.