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Kansas House bill would fine public universities $10,000 if they require diversity pledges

Rep. Steven Howe, R-Salina, is chair of the House Higher Education Budget Committee.
Tim Carpenter
Kansas Reflector
Rep. Steven Howe, R-Salina, is chair of the House Higher Education Budget Committee.

The bill crafted by Republican Rep. Steven Howe wouldn’t apply to private or parochial colleges and universities in Kansas. Originally, the financial penalty was $100,000 per offense. Critics say the measure is vague and violates academic freedom.

The Kansas House tentatively approved legislation Wednesday imposing a $10,000 fine for every instance in which a public university or college tied student admissions or faculty hiring to an ideological pledge or statement related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The bill crafted by Rep. Steven Howe, chairman of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, wouldn’t apply to private or parochial colleges and universities in Kansas. Amid bipartisan criticism, the committee reduced the financial penalty from $100,000 but retained provisions allowing the attorney general to take alleged offenders to district court if infractions reported to the Kansas Board of Regents remained after a 90-day grace period.

Political special-interest groups and state legislatures have campaigned for years against K-12 and higher education policies related to diversity, equity and inclusion — or simply, DEI. Advocates say attempts to make campuses more welcoming to historically disenfranchised students or faculty amounted to discrimination against people offended by that type of administrative intervention. Supporters of DEI believe the opposite.

“As DEI has expanded, it has created tension,” said Howe, a graduate of Kansas State University. “Instead of a merit-based approach, universities have chosen to embrace ideologies which discriminate against people that do not hew to their orthodoxy.”

He said House Bill 2460 was constitutionally sound and would serve to shield freedom of speech, protect academic freedom and promote intellectual diversity.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the bill didn’t attempt to define boundaries of diversity, equity and inclusion. He pointed to a Legislative Post Audit report on DEI spending at the six state universities in the Kansas Board of Regents system which identified six different definitions of DEI.

“It’s hard for me to pass a bill to punish a university for doing something that we don’t define,” Sawyer said. “I don’t know how you could comply with that.”

Revamped bill

Originally, the bill would have imposed a $100,000 fine for every infraction of the new DEI standard at public universities, community colleges, technical colleges and at Washburn University in Topeka. The bill wouldn’t prevent students or faculty involved in teaching or research from adhering to anti-discrimination law imposed at the state or federal levels.

The bill, scheduled for a final action vote Thursday in the House, would enable DEI complaints to be filed with the Board of Regents. The board’s staff would have 45 days to determine guilt or innocence. If guilty, the offending higher educational institution would have 90 days to become compliant. If that failed, the Board of Regents would refer the case to the attorney general. An individual unsatisfied with the Board of Regents’ handling of a complaint could take their case to the attorney general.

Staff with Attorney General Kris Kobach would seek a district court ruling against the alleged violator. In each instance of a DEI violation, the maximum fine would be $10,000. The Board of Regents would be required to promptly disclose confirmed violations and submit annual reports on infractions to the Legislature.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said the compromise bill was the product of debate among House members and incorporated thoughts of university leaders.

“None of the presidents are ever going to be supportive. They’re not going to come out and say, ‘I support this.’ They are truly neutral in this situation and believe we have struck a proper balance,” Hawkins said.

St. John Rep. Brett Stafford, a GOP member of the House higher education committee, said he considered the legislation more of an attempt to affirm freedom of speech on college campuses rather than a mechanism for stifling academic consideration of DEI tenets. He said the primary objective of the legislation was to add a state-level prohibition on discrimination in admissions and hiring on public campuses as it related to DEI.

He said significant amendments to the original bill reduced the proposed penalty for infractions and granted colleges and universities a window of time to correct problems.

Government overreach

Rep. Kirk Haskins, a Topeka Democrat and faculty member at Baker University in Baldwin City, said the House bill was an unjustified intrusion into higher education institutions and would serve to undermine intellectual inquiry on campuses. He said diversity enriched academic discourse and critical thinking rather than interfered with those activities.

“It’s an overreach and it violates academic freedom,” Haskins said. “Where’s the problem? Why don’t we trust educators?”

Howe, the sponsor of the bill, said he objected to an assertion by Lenexa Democratic Rep. Brandon Woodard that Sarah Green, a student at the University of Kansas, falsely testified to his House committee about DEI practices on the Lawrence campus.

Woodard alleged Green misrepresented herself to the House committee by not being clear a DEI survey she took when applying for a campus job was related to the university’s private athletics corporation and not the academic side of the university. He said her testimony on that point amounted to a lie.

Howe said it was wrong for Woodard to attack someone in the public square who wasn’t there to defend herself. He said Green exhibited courage by talking about her experiences at KU.

“This bill is not about the merits of DEI. It is not,” Howe said. “DEI is mentioned in the bill, because that’s where we identified the problem. There is evidence that the universities were, in fact, requiring this as a condition for employment.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas Reflector.

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.
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