Oklahoma Governor Signs Order Banning Diversity Programs at Public Colleges and Universities


In a controversial move, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed an executive order on Wednesday effectively banning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges and universities across the state.

The order prohibits the use of state funds, property, or resources towards DEI initiatives, calling for the dismissal of "non-critical personnel." While effective immediately, institutions are given until May 31, 2024, to comply with the directive.

Oklahoma Governor Signs Order Banning Diversity Programs at Public Colleges and Universities
(Photo : UNSPLASH / Gerson Repreza)

Governor Stitt's Stance and Responses from the Opposition

Stitt justified the order by stating that it aims to implement greater protections for Oklahomans and their tax dollars. However, critics argue that the move appears disproportionate, especially considering that only around $10.2 million was spent on DEI programs in the past decade, accounting for three-tenths of one percent of all higher education spending in the state.

Stitt asserted that Oklahoma should focus on supporting low-income and first-generation students instead of allocating resources based on race. However, DEI programs traditionally extend support not only to students from marginalized racial backgrounds but also to veterans, low-income individuals, first-generation students, single parents, and students with disabilities.

In response to the executive order, Joseph Harroz Jr., the president of the University of Oklahoma, addressed the concerns within the OU community. Harroz emphasized the university's commitment to accessible education, highlighting foundational values such as access and opportunity for all, a sense of belonging, dedication to free speech and inquiry, and civility in interactions. He reassured the community that these values remain unwavering, regardless of political ideology.

READ ALSO: Missouri Women's College Adapts Admissions Policy To Include Transgender And Non-Binary Students 

University of Oklahoma's Concerns

The University of Oklahoma's Black emergency response team, a student organization focused on activism, advocacy, and social justice, expressed deep concerns over the executive order. In a statement, the team emphasized the critical role played by DEI departments and programs in providing a safe and inclusive space for minority and marginalized communities on campuses. They argued that these initiatives offer students a platform to voice concerns, establish a sense of belonging, and foster unity within the student life community. Any attempt to remove personnel, funding, and programming, they believe, jeopardizes the very existence of these essential spaces.

Pushback Against DEI Initiatives

Oklahoma's ban on DEI programs is part of a broader trend across the United States, with various states attempting to roll back DEI initiatives that gained momentum during and after 2020. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed bills earlier this year prohibiting institutions from spending federal or state dollars on DEI initiatives. Last month, the Iowa Board of Regents directed the state's public universities to cut DEI programs that are not deemed necessary for research contracts or accreditation.

On the same day Governor Stitt signed his executive order, Wisconsin Republicans successfully influenced the University of Wisconsin to freeze DEI staffing through 2026 and eliminate or refocus about 40 positions dedicated to diversity. These actions underscore a national debate on the role and funding of DEI programs within higher education institutions.

Governor Stitt's executive order in Oklahoma reflects a contentious stance on the prioritization of educational resources and a national conversation on the role of DEI programs. As universities grapple with these decisions, the challenge lies in finding a balance between fiscal responsibility and ensuring that institutions remain inclusive spaces for all students, irrespective of their background or identity. The unfolding developments in Oklahoma contribute to a larger dialogue on the future of DEI initiatives in higher education and the values that underpin the nation's learning institutions.

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