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They may not agree on how to define DEI, but that's no problem for Kansas lawmakers attacking it


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers are joining fellow Republicans in other states in trying to restrict diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on university campuses, but they've drafted their proposals to avoid having to agree on how to define DEI.

The Kansas House planned to vote Thursday on a bill aimed at preventing universities, community colleges or technical colleges from basing a student's admission or an employee's hiring or promotion on any statement or pledge about diversity, equity or inclusion. While the bill includes those words, it also says universities cannot require a statement about “any political ideology or movement.”

The vote was set a week after the Senate approved a proposed $25 billion state budget with a provision designed to force universities to eliminate such requirements and mandatory DEI training. The provision would withhold $35.7 million from the state's six universities until they report to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican-controlled Legislature's leaders that they have done so.

Republicans in at least 20 states have sought to limit DEI initiatives, arguing that they are discriminatory and enforce a liberal political orthodoxy. Alabama's governor signed into law an anti-DEI bill on Wednesday; Utah enacted a law earlier this year; and proposals in Kentucky and South Carolina advanced this week.

“Universities have chosen to embrace ideologies that discriminate against people who do not hew to their orthodoxy,” state Rep. Steve Howe, a central Kansas Republican and the chair of a committee on higher education, said during a House debate Wednesday.

House approval Thursday would send its measure to the Senate. As for the anti-DEI budget provision, negotiators for the two chambers expect will discuss it as they draft the final version of the annual budget.

The House bill sets up a process for hearing DEI complaints, giving universities time to reverse contested actions. But it also allows the attorney general to file civil lawsuits against the universities and colleges and seek fines of up to $10,000.

A legislative audit released last month said 1.6% of the six state universities’ annual spending, or $45 million, went to DEI initiatives but noted that each university defined DEI differently. Besides initiatives traditionally seen as DEI, such as training and recruiting, they also included food pantries for poor students and services for military veterans and disabled students.

But neither Kansas measure defines DEI.

“It’s hard for me to pass a bill to punish a university for doing something that we don’t define," said Democratic state Rep. Tom Sawyer of Wichita. “The words diversity, equity and inclusion to me, in themselves, are positive words.”

Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said his chamber's bill creates a simple test — whether a university requires ideological statements from students, job applicants or employees — that doesn’t require everyone to agree how to define DEI.

“Everybody’s got a different definition,” Hawkins said. “To get everybody to aspire to one definition is pretty difficult.”

Similarly, state Sen. J.R. Claeys, another central Kansas Republican who wrote his chamber's budget provision, said it simply pushes higher education officials to stop using race-based criteria in their decisions, in line with last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action at universities.

Claeys, one of the Senate’s budget negotiators and an adviser to Republican state Attorney General Kris Kobach, said threatening funding is the best way to get universities to comply.

In statehouses across the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have been pushing opposite definitions of fairness and opportunity in education and state workplaces.

Democratic lawmakers in more than a dozen states are promoting more than 30 measures this year to require greater consideration of diversity, equity and inclusion. Republican state lawmakers have countered with more 60 measures to prohibit or restrict it, according to an Associated Press analysis using the bill tracking software Plural. Five of those GOP bills have won final approval.

The new Utah law prohibits government agencies, universities and K-12 schools from having diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, signed legislation last week barring higher education institutions from considering statements about diversity, equity and inclusion in decisions about employment, benefits or student admissions. That legislation also specifies that any diversity programming must address both “cultural and intellectual diversity.”

Republican lawmakers in Idaho and Wisconsin last week passed bills barring higher education institutions from conditioning employment and admission decisions on diversity statements.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is expected to veto his state's legislation. In Kansas, Kelly hasn't said what she would do if either GOP proposal passed, but she vetoed an anti-DEI provision included in budget legislation last year.

The measure approved by Alabama lawmakers would prohibit state agencies, universities and K-12 school systems from sponsoring DEI programs. It also would prohibit them from forcing students or employees to adhere to “a divisive concept," a term that covers concepts such as white privilege, systemic discrimination and the idea that merit-based systems actually are “racist or sexist.”

The new Alabama law, which takes effect Oct. 1, would prohibit universities, K-12 school systems and state agencies from sponsoring DEI programs, defined under the bill as classes, training, programs and events where attendance is based on a person’s race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation.

Legislation that passed the Kentucky House this week includes similar language in its definition of “discriminatory" concepts that state universities would be barred in using in training programs or course requirements.

In the Kansas House, the higher education committee wrestled with drafting a definition. Republican Rep. Clark Sanders, another central Kansas Republican, initially expressed misgivings about the lack of one but later came around.

“I may not be able to give you an explanation or a definition, but I'd know it when I saw it,” he said.


Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.