Senate Republican Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, sponsored a bill to make the state school board a partisan elected body. (LRC Public Information)
FRANKFORT — Employees and students could sue public universities and colleges in Kentucky on grounds they were discriminated against for rejecting “divisive concepts” defined in a new bill introduced in the Kentucky legislature.
Senate Bill 6 says students and employees whose claims are successful could be awarded up to $100,000.
The sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, wants to discourage diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies that he says “divide instead of unite people” in higher education, according to a Senate Republican press release.
Wilson, R-Bowling Green, wants to prevent public postsecondary institutions from requiring employees and students to “endorse a specific ideology or political viewpoint” as part of graduation or hiring practices.
“Instead of promoting intellectual dialogue, individualism, the content of one’s character and merit-based practices, DEI has driven a wedge against those of us who want to see Kentucky achieve greater things,” Wilson said.
Provisions in the bill say it would not prevent postsecondary institutions “from training students or employees on the nondiscrimination requirements of federal or state law” and that institutions may continue to implement diversity, equity and inclusion standards if “such efforts are consistent with the provisions” of the legislation. The bill also says it should not be interpreted in ways that “infringe on the rights of academic freedom of faculty in public postsecondary education institutions.”
The bill includes a long list of “divisive concepts” that would not be allowed in non-credit classes, seminars, workshops, training and orientations. Among the “divisive concepts” defined in SB6:
- An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.
- An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
- One race or sex “is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex.”
- “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
- “The Commonwealth of Kentucky or the United States of America is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
- “Promotes or advocates the violent overthrow of the United States government.”
Wilson told reporters Thursday afternoon that he’s seen DEI cause division in universities and that he discussed his legislation with several universities.
Higher education institutions told the Kentucky Lantern they are reviewing the bill.
Ryan Quarles, the new president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and a former Republican lawmaker and agriculture commissioner, said a “diverse student body leads to a diverse Kentucky workforce.” Quarles said KCTCS will “remain committed to training and educating the workforce of tomorrow because that is what the commonwealth deserves.”
Wilson told reporters, “I respect diversity and inclusion, including everybody. And as far as that is concerned, I think that we’ve done a really good job with all of our laws, federal and state, to combat racism and those kinds of events. And I think we have enough on the books to be able to do that, to include everyone and make sure that we’re reaching out to all students, as far as their intellectual diversity, and that’s one of the things that I think it was hindering, rights of free speech and stuff like that.”
The bill requires that diversity initiatives at public universities and colleges “include efforts to strengthen and increase intellectual diversity among the students and faculty.”
The legislation was assigned to the Senate Education committee on Wednesday.
Conservative politicians take aim nationwide
Nationwide, DEI initiatives have become a target of conservative politicians who argue such frameworks favor some demographic groups, usually minority groups, over others.
The Kentucky Senate GOP press release said the legislation’s goal is for universities “to hire and make promotion decisions based on an individual’s skills, qualifications, and performance rather than superficial factors like race, gender, or other identity markers.”
Wilson’s bill is modeled after a recent Tennessee law, which also prohibits “divisive concepts.” He said he liked that legislation the best because “we still do not want to infringe on the academic freedom of our universities or our professors at this point, and we felt like that takes care of that.”
Last month, Wilson, along with Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, called on the accrediting body Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to not add new DEI standards for accreditation.
In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Republican Senate President Roberts Stivers said the Senate and the House have not “had a lot of discussions” about DEI legislation, but noted “it’s early in the session.”
“Couple of things that we want to make sure of is that we do things that don’t hurt us in one way or another and we want to be measured in what we do,” Stivers said. “How that will eventually look is still up for debate.”
Ahead of last year’s gubernatorial election, Republican nominee and former Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron was often critical of DEI practices. He joined coalitions of attorneys general in warning law firms and businesses from using race-based hiring practices after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned affirmative action.
“Kentucky should be a place where everyone can succeed, not just those who were born on third base to check a DEI box,” Cameron said in an August campaign press conference.
Universities, colleges reviewing the bill
Quarles, the new KCTCS president, said in a statement that the system of two-year colleges is reviewing the legislation. “Education, more than anything else, should be the great equalizer… not a divider,” he said.
“At KCTCS, everyone belongs — whether they are a first-generation student, a veteran, a single working parent, formerly incarcerated, or an English-as-second-language student…regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation,” Quarles said. “We promote student success by offering community partnerships, activities, and wrap-around support for all those in our community who may need them…these services are meant for any and all.
Jay Blanton, a spokesperson for the University of Kentucky said in a statement that UK received a copy of the bill Tuesday evening.
“We will take the appropriate time to review it and, as with any legislation impacting higher education, will engage in discussions with legislators, policymakers and our campus,” Blanton said. “We are a campus steadfastly committed to ensuring that we are a place of belonging for everyone as well as a community dedicated to the fundamental academic value and principle of open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. Those ideas are not only compatible, but essential, to who we are and what we do as Kentucky’s university.”
Rick Hesterberg, Morehead State University’s vice president of University Advancement, said MSU received a copy of the bill and had not finished evaluating it as of Thursday.
“MSU has historically promoted a climate of respect for all people on our campus,” Hesterberg added.
Corey Best, spokesperson for Northern Kentucky University, said in a statement that NKU is reviewing the bill and its potential impacts on the university.
“We are an institution committed to fostering an inclusive environment where a wide variety of thoughts and opinions are encouraged and supported,” Best said. “We will approach any legislative changes with our mission in mind ensuring our students, faculty and staff know we value all viewpoints and perspectives.”
Kentucky State University officials said they are also reviewing the bill and they “emphasize that KSU remains committed to welcoming all students, regardless of their age, race, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, ideology, or religion. Being an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), KSU was founded on the belief that everyone deserves education and self-improvement opportunities.”
“KSU aims to create a comprehensive learning environment for everyone, ensuring the success of every student from admission to graduation and their careers,” the statement said. “KSU values a diverse community, as our students come from various backgrounds, contributing to the transformation and expansion of the institution and communities. As the only public HBCU in the Commonwealth, KSU strives to prepare students as the future workforce of Kentucky through education and experiences in collaboration with industry partners.”
Western Kentucky University is tracking the bill as well as others that may affect the university. Eastern Kentucky University and Murray State University began reviewing bills introduced since the session started and plans to discuss their priorities with policymakers. The University of Louisville had not yet reviewed the legislation as of Wednesday afternoon.
Officials of the Council on Postsecondary Education, the board that oversees public higher education in Kentucky, said they are “monitoring its progress, while engaging in conversation with legislators on the possible effects of this bill in its current form.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday evening with additional comments.
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