A bill that would have banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices and officers in Utah higher education has been converted to a study instead.
Lawmakers voted Monday to send the issue to the interim Education Committee for further study. The vote came after discussion that the bill would be unnecessary, although SB283 sponsor Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, filed a new version of the bill to make it a topic of study.
Johnson said the original bill's wording was "quite a bit strong" and that it is "way too harsh" to just cut off diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
"What really brought this on with me is we're spending over $11 million a year on these programs across the state," Johnson said. "The real question is where are the benefits? And we have to have a robust discussion about the cost of this versus the benefit."
Utah System of Higher Education spokeswoman Trisha Dugovic said the office couldn't confirm the $11 million figure since it does not track spending on diversity, equity and inclusion.
"Though the board is focused on DEI within its strategic plan and works with institutions to advance those efforts, each institution is independently responsible for their DEI budgets," Dugovic said over email.
Public commenters stressed that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts do benefit students. University of Utah President Taylor Randall pointed to racial and socioeconomic disparities whose impact ranges from health and housing to graduation rates and education access as something the study will help shed more light on.
"These disparities are real," Randall said. "I work every day with diversity, equity and inclusion professionals. They're remarkable people. They are at the ground level of trying to bring our multicultural communities into higher education and they're at the ground level of trying to get them through higher education."
He added that diversity, equity and inclusion programs are integral to institutions' accreditation as well as multifaceted, extending beyond race and ethnicity to communities of faith.
"We'll learn that creating specific communities help these people feel more whole and help them get through their education," Randall said of the study.
Dave Woolstenhulme, Utah System of Higher Education commissioner, said diversity, equity and inclusion offices are key to colleges and universities and that other states have divided the issue in an unhealthy way.
"We definitely are not afraid to study things. That's what we do in education and we're absolutely happy to look at this and see where we're at," Woolstenhulme said. "While we're happy to study it, we also very much appreciate these individuals at our campuses that do so much good work with our students."
Dr. Dianne McAdams-Jones, a Utah Valley University professor and a major in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, gave personal testimony of the benefit of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
"The fine senator wanted to know what are the benefits? I am a benefit," said McAdams-Jones, the daughter of Black sharecroppers. "We cannot bring people here if we continue to do these kinds of bills. As the good president Randall said, we need to support diversity. We need to bring more diversity here."
James Evans, the first African-American Utah State senator and Utah GOP chairman, urged lawmakers to ensure that diverse talents and perspectives are involved in the study.
"We've worked on this for a long time. These issues of diversity and demographic changes are at a point now where our Legislature as a whole is ready to engage in a productive way," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunity where we can come up with solutions that are best for Utah."