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College DEI offices are falling out of favor. Are faith-related programs at risk?

The current debate over DEI programming is primarily focused on race. But it will affect religion, too

SHARE College DEI offices are falling out of favor. Are faith-related programs at risk?

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Around Christmas, Matt Hartley, director of the Interfaith Center at the University of North Florida, found himself on a naughty list of sorts.

The state of Florida had asked his employer and other public universities to compile and submit information on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives on campus, as Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared his now-prominent policy push against what he would call “woke” programming, particularly regarding race.

Since North Florida’s Interfaith Center is part of the school’s DEI Office, details about Hartley’s work and Hartley himself were included in the data the school sent to the state.

“I knew that not only my center but my name was on that list. You definitely get a sense that people are aiming for you for caring about inclusion, which is sad and discouraging,” said Hartley, who spoke with the Deseret News about his own experience, not on behalf of his employer.

DeSantis and other leaders in the growing anti-DEI movement would say the problem is illiberalism, not inclusion, but the result is the same: Interfaith advocates like Hartley feel uncertain about their future, despite the fact that their work centers on religion, not race.

“I could lose my income, my health insurance. I could lose this work that I’m passionate about, the work of inclusion through religious diversity,” Hartley said.

His students, meanwhile, could lose opportunities to learn about their classmates’ religions and to teach others about their own beliefs and practices. The Interfaith Center regularly hosts events aimed at boosting understanding of everything from the Jewish holiday of Purim to what it’s like to grow up Muslim in the South.

“There’s no indoctrination going on,” Hartley said. “There’s a full inclusion of voices across the religious and political spectrum.”

But opponents of existing DEI infrastructure believe the focus right now should be on what could be gained from bringing change to campuses, rather than on the processes and programs that could be lost.

Overly bureaucratic diversity initiatives are preventing universities from actually meeting students’ needs, said Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute.

“It’s not that everything that is now under an office that has one of the words of DEI in its title needs to be gotten rid of,” he said. “The concern is university administrators are instilling certain ideological doctrines” that are contributing to an “illiberal wave.”

Defunding DEI

Shapiro, who co-authored the Manhattan Institute’s model anti-DEI legislation, believes passing bills to defund campus DEI offices is a way to make universities freer and more ideologically diverse.

By forcing restructuring, policymakers can ensure the departure or reassignment of school employees who are sowing division, he said.

“Offices that ... promulgate a worldview about hierarchies of privilege are only inflaming tensions,” he said.

If the DEI world was a forest, what Shapiro would be advocating for would be a tree thinning, rather than a fire. He’s not calling for diversity initiatives to be burnt down to ashes, but, instead, for them to be refocused on student-led clubs and the types of programs that “college students from 20 years ago would recognize.”

“Nothing that would have existed or did exist 20 years ago is threatened, whether that’s interfaith centers” or a Title IX office, Shapiro said.

But that message is already getting lost in states where anti-DEI bills were filed in recent months.

At a February press conference focused on the state of higher education, DeSantis called for DEI programs and critical race theory to get “no funding” so that they might “wither on the vine,” according to The Associated Press.

Statements like those have come to dominate the conversation, said John Hawthorne, an evaluator for a higher education accrediting association, adding that it’s no wonder educators like Hartley feel as if they’re running out of time.

How do you protect your programming when all it takes to be seen as controversial is “somebody with a platform thinking something is off-kilter?” Hawthorne asked.

Future of interfaith programming

Even under the approach Shapiro outlined, religion-related programming could be scaled back on campuses nationwide. That’s because at many schools, the administrators planning race or sexuality-based events are the same people setting up programs on faith.

In other words, not all schools have a clearly defined interfaith center that might retain support as other DEI initiatives are viewed with suspicion. And those that do may still have to deal with government-imposed budget cuts.

Hartley believes students involved in North Florida’s Interfaith Center programming would suffer if an anti-DEI bill passes, whether or not the center itself faces staff or budget cuts. The young people he works with “have so many different identities” and benefit from multiple parts of the DEI office, he said.

“It’s not good enough for me for interfaith to dodge this,” he said.

That’s why he’s spent recent weeks telling friends and neighbors about what DEI initiatives look like from his perspective. He hopes there’s still time to change the publics’ — and policymakers’ — perception of what he and his colleagues contribute to campus life.

“I am proud of our diversity and inclusion efforts at the university,” he said. “They’re bridging difficult divides.”