Regents panel calls for dropping university DEI activities not tied to compliance, accreditation

By: - November 7, 2023 7:35 pm

The state Board of Regents will discuss recommendations on university DEI initiatives next week. (Photo illustration using images courtesy of the Iowa Board of Regents, Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa)

A state Board of Regents study group tasked with reviewing each of the three regent universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs recommends changing or eliminating “unnecessary” DEI functions and responsibilities.

The regents will discuss the survey and the study group’s recommendations at its Nov. 15-16 meeting at the University of Northern Iowa.


Board President Mike Richards appointed a study group, comprised of Regents David Barker, Jim Lindenmayer and Greta Rouse, to investigate the universities’ initiatives and programs relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

These efforts were reviewed, according to the report, to determine the extent of which they sustain the institution’s mission of delivering a high-quality education that is accessible to all Iowans, are required to keep legal or compliance obligations, and whether they should be reduced or eliminated.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in June signed Senate File 560 into law, directing the board to review the state’s public universities and conduct a comprehensive DEI study.

Included in the report are 10 recommendations made by the group after working with campus leaders to learn about areas including human resources, academic affairs and faculty and staff governance and receiving responses from a feedback form open to the public.


The group’s 10 recommendations were broken into four categories: current structure of DEI and compliance functions, human resources, academic and curricular matters, and free speech and related matters.

DEI central offices: The group recommended eliminating any DEI functions within university DEI central offices that aren’t necessary for compliance or accreditation, and to ensure that all support services are available to all students or employees, accounting for state and federal eligibility requirements.

“The Study Group recognizes that in some instances these offices might perform functions necessary to assure compliance with state and federal laws, grant and contract requirements, or accreditation,” the report said. “However, the Study Group is unable to conclude that all the programming, training and services provided by these units are necessary for one of these purposes.”

DEI  decentralized positions: The study recommends a review of all decentralized DEI positions in various departments and units to ascertain whether their DEI-specific job duties are necessary for compliance, accreditation or student support services, and to adjust or eliminate any unnecessary responsibilities.

According to the report, the University of Iowa’s Office of Multicultural and International Student Support and Engagement, University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Multicultural Education and Iowa State University’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs each have statements or promotional materials that could be perceived as barring certain groups of students from participating in their programming.

Support services: The report recommends that universities review services provided by “offices currently supporting diversity or multicultural affairs in other divisions of the university” to confirm they are available to any student and to update materials and websites to make clear that their mission is to “support success broadly,” according to the report.

“The Study Group agrees that staff in decentralized units and the multicultural centers offer some important services that support student success, although better efforts could be made to assure that students understand that all are welcome,” the report said.

Personal pronouns, DEI statements: The group recommended ensuring that no one affiliated with the universities would be “compelled” to share their pronouns. Also, no one would be required to submit a DEI statement or be evaluated based on their participation in DEI programming, unless required for accreditation or compliance.

In the group’s investigation, the report stated it found no evidence of quotas in hiring based on protective class, or other employee practices.

“The Study Group found no evidence of any official university policies requiring applicants or employees to submit a written DEI statement. However, in practice some individual departments were occasionally imposing such a requirement as part of the hiring process,” the report said.

Admissions policy: The group recommended restricting consideration of race, sex and other protected characteristics in admissions. The regent universities use the Regent Admission Index, which does not bring protected characteristics into account.

While the University of Iowa has removed all race and ethnicity fields from being viewed on applications by admissions, and Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa both affirmed to the study group that protected characteristics were not considered in admissions to graduate and professional programs, the study group recommended a board policy prohibiting consideration of protected characteristics in admissions.

Update core category names: The panel recommended reviewing general education core categories relating to DEI and updating their names to better reflect the offerings of various classes available for students.

At Iowa State University, students must take one class in the U.S. Diversity core area, which includes 94 courses, some not relating to DEI. The University of Iowa requires students take one course out of 60 in the Diversity and Inclusion area, some of which are not connected to DEI. University of Northern Iowa students must take two classes in the Human Condition area, one each under the Domestic and Global categories.

“To assure that students have a clear understanding of the purpose of this portion of the general education requirements as well as the range of ways to meet that requirement, the Study Group proposes a recommendation to review and update the name of this category of courses,” the report said.

The last four recommendations pertain to free speech of employees and expanding diversity of thought and perspective.

Employee political advocacy: Noting that Iowa law prohibits the use of university resources for political activities, the group recommended issuing information annually to employees about the separation of political advocacy from university work.

Recruit for diversity of viewpoints: According to the report, the group believes that more should be done to foster diversity of viewpoints on university campuses. Utilizing recruitment strategies that have been used to increase underrepresented minorities applying for jobs, the group recommended that universities explore ways to advance “diversity of intellectual and philosophical perspective in faculty and staff applicant pools.”

Explore civic education, freedom of expression studies: Following the trend of universities across the country establishing institutions or centers dedicated to civic education and freedom of expression, the group recommended that the universities develop proposals, with costs, for initiatives with opportunities to explore studies in these areas.

Statements that counter board policy: The report recommends that the board issue an annual reminder of policies that govern university websites, pertaining to statements that may not be in compliance with Board policy. One example listed in the report is of land acknowledgements, which typically identify native peoples whose land is now occupied by university facilities. Land acknowledgements vary in source and content between the universities, but “may use language that suggests a position that might depart from a Board position,” the report states.

“Feedback received in this process indicated that at times people on campus experience a ‘chilling effect’ on their free speech rights due to not entirely agreeing with some content from a DEI-related training or program,” the report said. “Improving the atmosphere for free, robust civil discourse is critical to the mission of the universities, but it requires thoughtful strategies and possibly access to additional resources to do it well.”

What happens next

According to the report, after taking action, the regents office and universities will “review and modify all relevant policies, practices and procedures to assure consistency with any recommendations adopted by the Board.”

The group also suggested in the report that the universities provide progress reports to the board at its April 2024 meeting.

In addition to comparing the regent universities’ definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion to peer institutions, which they deemed similarly broad, the study group also looked at recently enacted legislation in Florida and Texas, which bar federal and state funds from being spent on DEI activities and prohibit the creation or maintaining DEI offices, respectively.

The report also includes information on each university’s structure relating to DEI programs, diversity and inclusion requirements from college accreditors and the criteria university programs must meet in order to receive grant funding and contracts.

DEI study data

The regents received 8,425 responses to its feedback form, which was open to anyone in the public. More than half of respondents reported themselves as current faculty or staff, and just over 2,000 identified themselves as current students.

The University of Iowa and Iowa State University were most represented in the study, with more than 3,000 respondents each affiliated with one of the universities. Just over 800 University of Northern Iowa-affiliated people responded to the form, and around 850 of respondents were affiliated with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The number of responses varied by question because not all respondents answered every question.

About 5,500 respondents said they “have experience with or knowledge of mandatory programs, trainings or activities for students or employees that address diversity, equity and inclusion at one of the universities,” compared to the about 2,900 who answered “no.”

Just under 3,300 people responded to a question about whether, to their knowledge, the mandatory programming emphasizes a particular political stance or agenda, with about 2,600 responding “no.”

Just over 5,100 people acknowledged knowing about or having experience with optional DEI trainings. About 80% of those respondents said there was no evidence of a specific political agenda or position being emphasized.

More than half of just under 6,000 respondents found that it is “critically important” to offer optional DEI training and programming to university students, staff and faculty and more than 2,000 responded the same for the general public. Under 1,000 thought optional training was “not at all important” for each group.

Respondents were also asked to label, on a scale from 1 to 5, whether they believe there is a need for policies limiting DEI programs and activities at the regent universities. Of about 5,700 responses, two-thirds responded that there is no need for limits on DEI activities and programming. Just over 550 respondents indicated a slight need for policy limits, with a similar number responding that there is a critical need.


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Brooklyn Draisey
Brooklyn Draisey

Brooklyn Draisey is a Report for America corps member covering higher education. She previously worked for the Quad-City Times and The Gazette covering topics ranging from business to culture.