Over 999,000 readers this year!

Closing DEI office among suggestions from University of Wyoming working group

The group listed five options, ranging from outside funding to restructuring or closing the office of diversity, equity and inclusion. It also proposed changes to ensure no preferential treatment at UW.

University of Wyoming President Ed Seidel listens Thursday, March 21, 2024, during a board of trustees meeting at the campus. Many people attended the meeting to speak in support of diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the school. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

After the Legislature axed $1.7 million in University of Wyoming funding and prohibited state spending on the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, a university working group is proposing possible steps forward.

While Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed a portion of the Legislature’s budget that would have also barred state funding for “any diversity, equity and inclusion program, activity or function,” the UW working group examined a wide swath of DEI-related programming.  

“The message from lawmakers, regardless of the welcomed line-item veto from the Governor, is that our DEI efforts must change, and discussions are underway to determine the best path forward,” University President Ed Seidel wrote in a letter charting a course of action in response to the cuts.  

In a report released Wednesday, the group of faculty, staff, students and administrators offered five possible ways to deal specifically with the office:

  • Fund the office with private support.
  • Continue to fund the office with state funds under a new name.
  • Reorganize or consolidate the office under another re-named university “unit.” 
  • Close the office, terminate employees and redirect some of its duties elsewhere.
  • Close the office, terminate employees and redirect only federally required duties elsewhere.

The university says it welcomes public feedback on this working group report, including a section that suggests how to avoid any preferential treatment or exclusion at UW. 

In a statement, Seidel said people can share that feedback via this form through Sunday, April 21.

How we got here

Much of the Legislature’s far-right faction was resolute this year in its denunciation of DEI programming at the state’s only public university, echoing similar “anti-wokeness” campaigns around the U.S.

After contentious negotiations, lawmakers passed a budget that included the cut in university funding and a ban on using state funds, endowments or matching funds for the DEI office or “any diversity, equity and inclusion program, activity or function.”

University trustees signaled support for their programs in March while acknowledging possible challenges meeting these legislative directives. Still, they noted the ambiguity of the budget language and misunderstandings about what the office does and what DEI stands for at UW.

“I think we’re a victim of labels, and we’re a victim of misunderstandings and we’re a victim of broad brush, generalistic statements,” Vice Chair Kermit Brown said at the time. 

“Academic freedom will continue to be protected and celebrated at this institution. We will not diminish our exceptional faculty’s ability to decide what to teach or research.”

UW PRESIDENT ED SEIDEL

Gordon cited concerns about jeopardizing about $120 million per year in federal research dollars when explaining his decision to leave state funds for DEI programming intact, along with UW’s authority to use private funds for the DEI office.

After Gordon’s partial veto, Seidel directed a working group “with providing suggestions (not formal recommendations) on how essential diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, activities, and functions could be organized and funded within the university to make them most effective.”

That mix of faculty, staff, students and administrators met six times, stating in their report that the group, “was not a binary of supporting DEI versus opposing it, but rather the prudent use of state dollars in a financially constrained context and the examination of practices that might inadvertently perpetuate perceptions of preferential treatment or exclusion.”

Concern on both sides

The report acknowledges the subcommittee’s work on a topic that “may elicit strong emotions from constituents.” It also notes potential pitfalls of its own suggestions. 

When it comes to suggesting UW fully fund the office — using either private dollars or state money while renaming the office — the group notes it may not be following the “spirit” of the Legislature’s direction or intent.

If the DEI office was funded privately, the working group found it would need around $500,000 annually to maintain staff levels and create a “modest” operating budget. That would also translate into a $12.5 million endowment that produces enough interest to fund the office into the future. 

Previously, the office of DEI was estimated to cost about $865,000 for fiscal year 2024, resulting in the Legislature cutting $1.73 million from the university’s biennial block grant. 

The Multicultural Affairs office in the University of Wyoming student union. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

Meanwhile, closing the office and sending some duties elsewhere “would likely diminish support for a welcoming environment for all and remove critical central oversight of any DEI-related functions that remain to ensure they are not preferential or exclusionary,” the working group wrote. 

The report also highlights the narrow line UW has to walk, listing all the state and federal statutes that require the university to uphold certain types of DEI programming. 

What may be just as contentious as the report’s five suggestions, though, was a list of items the group suggested UW consider changing to ensure no preferential treatment or exclusion occurs.

That list includes reviewing things like graduate admissions practices, DEI advisory groups, rules regarding university speakers, recruitment and retention practices, scholarship awards, and support for student organizations.

“[M]any of the DEI-related programs, activities, and functions across the University — not directly managed by the office — do not align with the issues making national headlines,” the report states. “However, some modification might be considered to ensure that there is no preferential treatment or exclusion of groups based on specific identities.”

There were also suggestions to eliminate some practices, like the ability to hire someone based on a protected class without a competitive process and requests for “diversity or loyalty statements from candidates.”

The working group also mentioned the Black 14 Social Justice Summer Institute, which made headlines in recent weeks resulting in confusion about whether or not the program will go on this summer. This report outlines possible ways to continue supporting it — and other, similar programs — including working with the UW Foundation, fundraising private support or possibly transferring it to one of the colleges or schools.

What’s next?

President Seidel stated he will “make my official recommendations” at the May 8-10 trustees meeting.

Responding to questions that have already been raised, he stated Wednesday that “Academic freedom will continue to be protected and celebrated at this institution. We will not diminish our exceptional faculty’s ability to decide what to teach or research. Similarly, our freedom of expression initiative will continue to support and respect the perspectives of all and promote ways for everyone to engage productively.”

To view the trustees’ schedule or look at previous meeting materials, go here.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


Back

Related