Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Pushback against DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programs in Kentucky higher education is moving in the legislature with the passage of SB 6 in the state Senate on Tuesday. UK President Eli Capilouto called the bill “deeply concerning ” in a campus message and formally opposed it. According to bill sponsor State Senator Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green), many universities have become hostile environments for conservatives, sometimes shaming and punishing students and faculty for their viewpoints. Senate Bill 6 specifically bans the teaching of divisive topics such as, “America is fundamentally and irredeemably racist or sexist” and racial and sex “scapegoating.”

The intent behind DEI was laudable: weed out bigotry, thwart pernicious racism, and make higher ed more inclusive and accessible to all regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. However, according to Wilson, who’s also the Majority Whip of the State Senate, DEI policies have moved into viewpoint discrimination and coercion of conservative views on college campuses. Wilson wants a reset where universities return to the “marketplace of ideas where the free exchange of ideas are not suppressed.”

A UK college professor recently shared with me a climate hostile to conservative views and witnessed firsthand faculty compensation discrimination at the University of Kentucky. He wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. DEI abuses are more evident across the country. A student group called Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse was forced to sign a DEI statement in order to be recognized. The university later backed down. Additionally, Ohio Northern University fired a law professor for objecting to DEI hiring practices that elevated external characteristics above qualifications. Lastly, a female DEI staffer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire filed a lawsuit alleging she was demoted and suffered racial discrimination.

In practice, DEI policies have created a climate hostile to conservatism and effectively marginalized political views unpopular on campus. What comes to mind is the scene of former UK All-American Swimmer Riley Gaines being chased down a hallway at San Francisco State University because she dared to speak on campus that men shouldn’t compete in women’s sports. Viewpoint diversity is lacking on our college campuses. Southern Seminary professor Andrew Walker pointed out in a recent KET Kentucky Tonight discussion that it would be far more acceptable for a college student to articulate anti-Semitic beliefs than it would be to say that marriage is only between a man and a woman. So where does this thinking come from?

DEI is rooted in Critical Theory and based on the ideology of oppressor/oppressed power dynamics and equality of outcomes. In fact, the “E” or equity in “DEI” is inconsistent with the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. “Equity”, while it sounds good, pursues the equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity. One group explains, “Equity takes into consideration a person’s unique circumstances, adjusting treatment accordingly so that the end result is equal.” Equity prioritizes representation of race, gender, and sexuality groups in society without regard to merit, character, and work ethic. When equity is elevated over equality of opportunity, competency is sacrificed and resentment ensues. 

Philanthropist Bill Ackmann recently argued in a piece on X (formerly Twitter) that DEI is contrary to American Values and undermines free speech. “The DEI movement has also taken control of speech. Certain speech is no longer permitted. So-called ‘microaggressions’ are treated like hate speech. ‘Trigger warnings’ are required to protect students. ‘Safe spaces’ are necessary to protect students from the trauma inflicted by words that are challenging to the students’ newly-acquired worldviews. Campus speakers and faculty with unapproved views are shouted down, shunned, and cancelled.” This seems to be the norm on college campuses. True diversity initiatives should seek to promote and protect viewpoint diversity.

It has been argued that DEI is not needed as America’s universities are the most diverse in the entire world. According to professors Dorian S. Abbot and Ivan Marinovic in a Newsweek article they wrote, “Viewed objectively, American universities already are incredibly diverse. They feature people from all countries, races and ethnicities… Universities already possesses Title IX and Civil Rights Offices to address discrimination claims. America’s diversity is a stark contrast with most universities in Europe, Asia and South America. American universities are diverse not because of DEI, but because they have been extremely competitive at attracting talent from all over the world.”

DEI undermines the inherent dignity of every person without regard to skin color, gender, or political beliefs. If we do not want race to be an issue, then we should not make race an issue. Racial identity should not be a factor in college admissions as the US Supreme Court affirmed in its case last year Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. If we want to see people succeed and advance, we should look past their skin color and focus on merit. If we want to see less division, we should avoid dividing people based on external characteristics and political views. If we want to see less divisiveness then we should stop guilting, stereotyping, and scapegoating certain people. These are all aspects addressed in SB 6.

Instead of banning Campus DEI Departments, SB 6 redirects activity of DEI staff and requires that half of their time be spent on “mentoring… academic coaching and related learning support… for the academic success of students who are eligible to receive a federal Pell grant.” It also requires Kentucky colleges to provide a survey on the climate regarding freedom of speech beginning in 2025, and the results would have to be posted publicly. Failure to comply with the bill could result in fines of up to $100,000 for universities found guilty of discrimination, which immediately incentivizes compliance.