Colleges find a DEI makeover is a useful sidestep—for now

"If their programs are in and of itself not a violation of the law, then I think you’ll see this change across the board," says LaKeisha Marsh, chair of the Higher Education and Collegiate Athletics Practice at Akerman LLP.

Students, faculty and even high-level administrators are speaking publicly about the negative ramifications of proposed bans against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. School leaders who wish to comply with new regulations while simultaneously ensuring they’re appealing to diverse student bodies are parrying legislative restrictions with a simple yet sly strategy: rebranding their DEI offices.

The University of Oklahoma transformed its Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion into the Division of Access and Opportunity and assured no staff members would be terminated following an executive order from the state governor. Louisiana State University sidestepped growing friction from the state’s GOP base more subtly, rebranding the Division of Inclusion, Civil Rights and Title IX to the Division of Engagement, Civil Rights and Title IX.

“If their programs are in and of itself not a violation of the law, then I think you’ll see this change across the board,” says LaKeisha Marsh, chair of the Higher Education and Collegiate Athletics Practice at Akerman LLP. “The intent of the law when it’s honed in on ‘diversity’ focuses on the phrasing and not necessarily the type of programming or the structure of the programming that’s taking place.”

Some universities have elected to reposition their employees. Kennesaw State University in Georgia retitled its diversity chief as vice president of the Division of Organizational Effectiveness, Leadership Development and Inclusive Excellence, The New York Times reports.

Taking a vernacular sidestep comes with a caveat. Institutions’ student support offices are not homogenous and state laws opposing DEI vary from state to state. Florida has restricted public funding to DEI offices; Texas banned them from campus outright; and North Dakota, Kansas and Georgia’s boards of regents banned diversity statement requirements. Such subtleties require each college and institution to examine state law with precision, says Marsh.

Some institutions are choosing to test the boundaries of state compliance. Florida State University activated the Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance and Engagement in Oct. 2023 following a state law against DEI initiatives implemented in January. On the other hand, the University of Florida dismissed 13 full-time faculty members, eliminated the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer and nullified all related outside vendor contracts.

“What you’re seeing is more institutions trying to stay flexible and adapt to some of the changes while balancing some of the needs of the student body,” Marsh says. “They believe in the programs and services they’re providing to students.”

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Why the leaps and bounds?

Colleges and university leaders believe that without DEI initiatives, they will fail to meet the growing needs of their growingly diverse student bodies. The University of Tennessee, which changed its DEI office’s name to the Division of Access and Engagement, has historically enrolled an overwhelmingly white student body, Knox News reports. The university has also conceded that the state has experienced poorer retention rates of minority students, which further illuminates the need for more inclusive efforts.

University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson has recently rebuked attacks against DEI, claiming they are in direct contention with higher education’s democratic values.

“False narratives and caricatures of our work will not detract from our efforts to advance economic vitality and secure the future for our state through education, workforce development and research,” he told The Advocate. “A key part of our mission is empowering individuals, employers and communities to compete and flourish in a global economy. The people of Louisiana deserve nothing less.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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