Higher Education , Law & Principles , Good Government
Stitt takes aim at race-based discrimination in colleges
Ray Carter | December 13, 2023
With a newly issued executive order, Gov. Kevin Stitt is seeking to downsize or eliminate “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) offices and bureaucracy at Oklahoma colleges and to prevent state colleges from engaging in illegal discrimination.
And a state senator has filed several bills to solidify those protections in Oklahoma law.
“In Oklahoma, we’re going to encourage equal opportunity, rather than promising equal outcomes,” Stitt said. “Encouraging our workforce, economy, and education systems to flourish means shifting focus away from exclusivity and discrimination, and toward opportunity and merit. We’re taking politics out of education and focusing on preparing students for the workforce.”
Stitt’s order requires state agencies and institutions of higher education to initiate a review of DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures, and programs to eliminate and dismiss non-critical personnel.
Under the order, state agencies and institutions for higher education cannot utilize state funds, property, or resources to:
grant or support diversity, equity, and inclusion positions, departments, activities, procedures, or programs to the extent they grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin over another’s;
mandate any person to participate in, listen to, or receive any education, training, activities, procedures, or programming to the extent such education, training, activity, or procedure grants preferences based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin over another’s;
mandate any person swear, certify, or agree to any loyalty oath that favors or prefers one particular race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin over another’s;
mandate any person to certify or declare agreement with, recognition of, or adherence to, any particular political, philosophical, religious, or other ideological viewpoint;
mandate any applicant for employment provide a diversity, equity, and inclusion statement or give any applicant for employment preferential consideration based on the provision of such a diversity, equity, and inclusion statement; or
mandate any person to disclose their pronouns.
Oklahoma colleges and universities have until May 24 to comply with the order.
In recent years, DEI efforts at some Oklahoma colleges have become increasingly controversial due to their apparent role in fostering racial and civic strife.
In February, Oklahoma’s public colleges reported spending at least $83.4 million on 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.”
In 2021, the University of Oklahoma mandated that incoming students and staff take DEI training that informed students the phrase “Boomer Sooner” is steeped in racism and can represent a form of oppression, that OU remains a place of discrimination where students may literally fear for their lives, that support for racial equality is wrongheaded and “equity” measures that can involve different treatment for different groups based on race and other characteristics should be embraced instead. The training also explicitly told OU staff to embrace “political correctness” in their communications.
OU stopped mandating the training after passage of a state law made it illegal for Oklahoma colleges to require students “to engage in any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling” and banned any “orientation or requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex.”
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.
“For many of us, this news evokes deep concern and uncertainty about the future, and in many ways feels like a step backward.” —OU president Joseph Harroz, Jr.
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.
Several officials praised Stitt’s order.
Tamera Nealy, a senior at the University of Oklahoma who is black, recalled being raised by a single mother in Oklahoma City who encouraged her to work hard regardless of life’s challenges.
“We have to raise the standard,” Nealy said. “We have to raise the bar.”
Nealy, who was among those attending Stitt’s signing of the executive order, rejected the racial division associated with DEI ideology.
“We’re all equal in God’s eyes,” Nealy said. “We’re one human race. We’re one people. We’re one Oklahoma.”
Other officials also praised the order.
“Race, ethnicity, gender, and heritage should not be used to discriminate against any person,” said Patrice Onwuka, director of Independent Women’s Forum’s Center for Economic Opportunity, who is also black. “Yet, discriminatory DEI programming has done damage on college campuses—fomenting division between students, eroding free speech rights, threatening academic freedom, and bloating school bureaucracies, which in turn drives up tuition costs. Furthermore, these efforts do not prepare young women and men for the diverse workforce that values aptitude, grit, and skill, not a sense of entitlement driven by victimhood. We applaud Governor Stitt and the state for taking leadership on removing discriminatory and divisive race-based programming and staffing from Oklahoma colleges and universities. Every student deserves a campus free from discrimination.”
“Unfortunately, programs and policies operating under the guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly in our universities, have been shown to neither achieve meaningful diversity nor prepare our students for work and citizenship,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “Instead of giving opportunity to the underserved, they’ve given rise to religious intolerance and created a chilling effect on the free exercise and expression of strongly held religious faith and moral principles. We applaud the commitment of Governor Stitt and leaders in the House and Senate to preserve respect for the inclusion of the deeply held beliefs of all state employees and, in particular, of students at our state universities. While it is important to value the many diverse communities that make up a student body or workforce, it is equally important to do so in a way that respects the constitutional right to exercise faith free from coercive and discriminatory public policies.”
In contrast, OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr., criticized Stitt’s order in an email sent to supporters after the governor signed the measure.
“For many of us, this news evokes deep concern and uncertainty about the future, and in many ways feels like a step backward,” Harroz wrote.
Several Democrats issued a press release criticizing the order.
“The governor’s ban is a threat to every economic development strategy in Oklahoma and undermines the employability of business majors throughout Oklahoma,” said state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman.
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, similarly claimed the executive order “will have a chilling effect on the Oklahoma economy. Corporations looking to invest in Oklahoma will continue to pass us over for more forward-thinking and innovative states which respect the diverse world in which we all live.”
State Rep. Jared Deck, D-Norman, claimed the executive order is part of an “agenda to attack public education and expel public education students from this state.”
Following the signing of Stitt’s order, state Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, announced he has filed four bills to eliminate DEI influence from Oklahoma colleges.
Senate Bills 1303, 1304, 1305, and 1306 prohibit the establishment of a DEI office or hiring or assigning of employees to carry out DEI practices, among other safeguards. It also states that if the State Auditor and Inspector determines an institution has spent funds in violation of the legislation, the college could become ineligible to receive funding allocation increases from the State Regents in the next fiscal year.
Additionally, Standridge’s legislation would create the Oklahoma Workforce Education Revolving Fund for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce; direct each institution to establish curricula and designate courses in a manner that does not require or constrain students to enroll in a diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory (DEI-CRT)-related education, major, minor, or certificate requirements; and prohibits institutions within the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education beginning in the 2024-2025 academic year from requiring students to enroll in a course that is not a core requirement of their chosen curriculum, a course for which there is no tuition or fee charged comparable to similar courses, or a course that is not directly relevant to the degree being pursued and that the student or financially responsible person objects to on philosophical or religious reasons.
During an October legislative study requested by Standridge, experts warned that many college DEI programs violate students’ constitutional rights and could create legal and financial jeopardy for the state of Oklahoma.
“It is time for our state to kick out of our colleges and universities those that would discriminate and harm young and old students and faculty, and would use these citizens for their leftist, racist experiments,” Standridge said. “If an employee of our universities or colleges would discriminate against or favor one student or faculty member over another based on race, gender, pronouns, religion, or other reason apart from merit, they should be terminated immediately and replaced with someone that understands the protections against this (that) our U.S. Constitution gives each and every citizen. DEI must end in our state, and end now.”
[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.