Regents approve DEI study group recommendations on diversity, inclusion programs

By: - November 16, 2023 5:33 pm

The Iowa Board of Regents approved DEI Study Group recommendations at its Nov. 16, 2023 meeting. (Photo by Brooklyn Draisey/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Despite calls from students and alumni to protect diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public universities, the Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday approved recommendations to do away with any such efforts that are unnecessary for accreditation or compliance.

The board discussed the report and recommendations of the DEI Study Group, created by regents and study group members David Barker, Jim Lindenmayer and Greta Rouse after an investigation into the universities’ initiatives and programs relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. The board approved 10 recommendations touching on centralized and decentralized DEI programs, human resources and expanding the diversity of viewpoints on campus.

Each of the study group members thanked the campus leaders and board staff for their work these past months and commended the universities for being welcoming institutions for all. Barker said college DEI programs have grown rapidly over the past several years, and like any program that expands quickly, they need to be reviewed by governing boards from time to time to see what works well and what doesn’t.

The board has given the universities a lot of latitude to interpret and implement the recommendations, Lindenmayer said, and Barker concurred.


“I learned from this review that our universities are welcoming places,” Barker said. “They do not withhold benefits or opportunities from anyone because they are members of minority racial groups, or because of their nationality, sex, gender or sexual preference, university faculty staff and administrators are committed to providing equal opportunity for all students…

“Our universities will continue to be welcoming institutions. They will not discriminate on the basis of any of these categories whether we retain or eliminate DEI programs we reviewed.”

Those efforts were reviewed, according to the report, to determine the extent to which they sustain the institutions’ mission of delivering a high-quality education that is accessible to all Iowans; whether they are required to meet legal or compliance obligations; and whether they should be reduced or eliminated. Students, staff, faculty and members of the public also responded to a feedback survey about DEI programming on campus, of which the majority called optional DEI training “critically important.”

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.

Regent Nancy Dunkel urged the board to be careful and use their good judgment in reviewing the recommendations in order to weed out those that would run counter to their loyalty to the universities’ missions. She spoke out against the study group’s comparisons to Florida and Texas and said they need to listen to the voices of those who aren’t on the board and therefore can’t vote on the issue.

“Our decisions should be what’s best for our schools in cooperation with their leaders,” Dunkel said. “Instead, we’re micromanaging their decisions and imposing new political intrusions on freedom. Professors and leaders in our schools encourage critical thinking, discussion and questioning to improve learning. External intrusions do not improve learning, but are trying to undermine and control the universities.”

Six of the recommendations were passed as a group, including: reviewing services to confirm they’re available to all students;  ensuring that no one has to submit DEI statements or is compelled to provide their preferred pronouns; updating course category names; and consistently issuing guidance to employees and universities on political statements.

As written in the report, the six recommendations are:

Recommendation 3: Review the services provided by offices currently supporting diversity or multicultural affairs in other divisions of the university to ensure they are available to all students, subject to applicable state or federal eligibility requirements. Program promotional and informational materials and websites shall be updated to clarify that the mission of these offices is to support success broadly.

Recommendation 4: Take reasonable steps to assure the following: a. No employee, student, applicant, or campus visitor is required to submit a DEI statement or be evaluated based on participation in DEI initiatives, unless the position is required for DEI-related compliance or accreditation. b. No employee, student, applicant, or campus visitor is compelled to disclose their pronouns.

Recommendation 5: Develop a board policy prohibiting the consideration of race and other protected class characteristics in admissions that is consistent with the law.

Recommendation 6: Initiate a review of DEI-related general education categories and update category names to accurately reflect the array of options students may select from to satisfy these requirements and ensure a breadth of offerings.

Recommendation 7: Standardize issuance of annual employee guidance regarding the separation of personal political advocacy from university business and employment activities.

Recommendation 10: Annually, the board office shall issue a reminder to the universities on the requirements of 4.2.I, which governs university websites and other university communications.

The other four recommendations were passed individually after board discussion.

Regent Abby Crow had concerns about the group’s first two recommendations, which require universities to eliminate central DEI office functions that are unnecessary for accreditation or compliance and to review other DEI responsibilities under the same criteria. Crow said those seem to run counter to another recommendation that calls for institutions to look into recruitment of varying philosophical perspectives.

Three of the remaining four recommendations are described in the report as follows:

Recommendation 1: Restructure the central, university-wide DEI offices to eliminate any DEI functions that are not necessary for compliance or accreditation. Support services in these offices must be broadly available to all students and/or employees, subject to applicable state or federal eligibility requirements.

Recommendation 2: Review all college, department, or unit-level DEI positions to determine whether DEI-specific job responsibilities are necessary for compliance, accreditation or student and employee support services. Any position responsibilities that are not necessary for these purposes shall be adjusted or eliminated. Position and/or working titles shall be reviewed to ensure they appropriately reflect position responsibilities.

Recommendation 8: Explore potential recruitment strategies for advancing diversity of intellectual and philosophical perspective in faculty and staff applicant pools.

Crow and Dunkel voted against passing those three recommendations — Crow with the reasoning that after hearing concerns from students she couldn’t in good conscience go against her constituency.

Crow said she didn’t see how telling the regent universities to eliminate DEI programming in certain areas if not required isn’t contrary to asking them to explore ways to increase diverse perspectives in hiring. Dunkel also brought up the conflicting nature of some of the goals, noting that there were recommendations to dispose of DEI efforts in one area, while increasing those efforts in another.

“I don’t think we can pick and choose which aspects of diversity that we want to encourage more at the universities,” Crow said of the opposing nature of some of the recommendations. “I think that if we want these programs or hiring practices to be broadly universal, equal, I don’t understand how uplifting one and reducing others is fair.”

Barker disagreed, saying they can, in fact, recognize that the universities have made enough progress in certain areas with DEI to now turn those efforts toward making progress in other areas.

As for Recommendation 9, the language was changed about educating on free speech and civic education, so that it calls for universities to explore, rather than to develop, the establishment of a “widespread initiative that includes opportunities for education and research on free speech and civic education.”

Now that the recommendations have been approved, each of the universities will form task forces to respond to the recommendations and bring progress reports to the board at its April 2024 meeting.

“I know no one enjoys the scrutiny of having a study committee examine their life’s work, and I’m sure that this has created a bit of worry and consternation among students, and staff,” Lindenmayer said. “I’m confident that we will all learn a lot about this important topic and will be better for it.”

Students from the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University stood before the board Wednesday to speak on their experiences with DEI programs and their importance to university communities. They each urged regents to see how programs for people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and more are an asset to both the students and administration.

UNI fourth-year student Sam Zimmerman said having access to DEI services was a life-saving opportunity.

“Through diversity, equity and inclusion services, I’ve not only found myself, but my family. To be able to see other people who look like me and share similar experiences reminds me that I’m not alone,” Zimmerman said. “The support has immensely improved my mental health and quality of life, allowing me to more passionately contribute to the campus community and make a difference. Without programs like diversity, inclusion and social justice at UNI. I may not be standing here before you today.”


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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.