Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, sponsored (LRC Public Information)
FRANKFORT — A bill that would curb diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in Kentucky’s public universities advanced from a legislative committee Thursday after undergoing several changes.
The original Senate Bill 6 would have allowed employees and students to sue public universities and colleges on grounds they were discriminated against for rejecting “divisive concepts.” Under the committee substitute version, the Kentucky attorney general would have the authority to bring civil legal actions against universities that do not comply with the law. Universities and colleges also would be required to publish course descriptions, syllabi, assigned or recommended textbooks online.
The revised bill also says new student orientation programs offered by public universities and colleges must include the text of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, have discussion and resources on “the principles and importance of free speech and viewpoint diversity,” written and verbal notice of the attorney general’s power to bring civil action against universities that do not comply with the legislation, and more.
The bill passed through the Senate Education Committee on a party-line vote, with 10 Republicans voting in favor of it and two Democrats voting against it.
Opponents of the bill warned the measure could roll back inclusion of marginalized groups on college campuses, while supporters said it would protect intellectual diversity for conservatives.
SB 6 is one of a few anti-DEI bills filed in Kentucky this session, but has been the first to receive a committee hearing. Nine GOP senators have joined as co-sponsors.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Senate Republican Whip Mike Wilson, brought a University of Kentucky student and a University of Louisville professor to speak against DEI programs. Wilson said his intention is to counter a trend of professors and scholars being denied promotions because they “do not conform to liberal ideologies” in public institutions.
“The discriminatory concept prohibitions listed in this bill do not prohibit diversity initiatives,” Wilson said. “They prohibit initiatives that would tend to pit ethnic groups or possibly two genders against each other. I think that when the prohibitions and discriminatory concepts are reviewed, the vast majority of Kentucky will find the limitations to be common sense and uncontroversial.”
The legislation mandates that required courses and mandatory trainings cannot present “discriminatory concepts” such as:
- 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
- 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
- Promotes or advocates the violent overthrow of the United States government
- Promotes division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people
- The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups
Senate Democratic Floor Leader Gerald Neal, of Louisville, said when casting his no vote that such legislation would not advance Kentucky, but move the state backward.
“We are in the midst of racism and it’s painful for everybody. And we will struggle together and individually to free ourselves from this malady,” Neal said. “It’s not good. We all know that. It affects people differently.”
Only Wilson’s guests spoke in favor of the bill. About five speakers opposed it, including people who work in higher education.
Seated next to Wilson, Rebekah Keith, an English major at UK, testified that after not being hired as a dormitory resident adviser during her freshman year, she had a follow-up meeting to receive feedback on her interview. There, she said, she was told she “didn’t have experience being an ‘other.’”
Later as a student in a women’s literature class, Keith said the syllabus included a policy to not allow comments that were “homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-semitic, sexist, ableist, classist or otherwise offensive, particularly toward protected groups.” The penalty would be to be removed from the class for the day and lose points, Keith said.
“As someone who believes that there are only two genders and that men cannot become women, this was problematic,” she said.
Keith continued, and said she spoke with a professor to “ensure that my first amendment rights were going to be protected.” She said she was told that also long as she did not use a slur in class, she would be fine.
“I was the lone conservative speaking up, as it was a very liberal class including the professor, but that was fine with me,” Keith said. “I’m used to being in the minority on a college campus.”
However, the topic of gender came up in the course, and Keith made her views on the issue known. After that, the professor sent her an email and said she “wasn’t recognizing the humanity of the other students in class.” She added the professor alleged Keith broke the UK Code of Student Conduct, which supports university values such as “integrity, respect, responsibility and accountability, and sense of community.”
UK is a predominantly white institution. According to Spring 2023 statistics, more than 73% of enrolled students were white.
Later when asked by a committee member to clarify how she brought up the issues with the university, Keith said she dropped the course for unrelated reasons, but had emailed the professor back after speaking with another one. She also did not appeal the RA hiring decision.
When asked for comment, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton told the Kentucky Lantern he cannot speak to the incidents Keith testified about in the committee.
“But all our students should feel free — and should be encouraged — to voice their opinions and points of view — always — without fear of reprisal,” Blanton added. “Indeed, stating points of view and perspective should always be welcome. That is our expectation and those are our values.”
Wilson’s other guest, Ben Foster, an accountancy professor at UofL and president of the Kentucky Association of Scholars, said at the university he has heard of someone arguing a candidate was “too conservative” to be the chair of the business department and, as part of a different search for another college’s dean, candidates were asked to complete a diversity statement which was made public. Foster said moderate conservatives and libertarians “feel very unwelcome on campus.”
“The first time I ever heard the term white privilege was at the University of Louisville where they had a ‘white privilege forum,’” Foster said. “And when I sat in there, one thing that entered my mind was I didn’t feel that privilege when I was a kid and had to go use the outhouse in the winter.”
UofL spokesperson John Karman said the university has “no university policy that requires a commitment to DEI by faculty, staff or students.”
Aaron Thompson, the president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, took several questions from the committee after Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, asked him to speak. Thompson said he has had multiple conversations about the bill with Wilson ahead of the committee meeting.
“Universities and colleges are an integrated society with a lot of different thoughts. … But one of the pieces I would pose to you — that in many cases when we try to force people in thinking one way, it’s because other people are seeing them that way,” Thompson said.
Kiara Gray, education policy and advocacy strategist for the Louisville Urban League, said the organization opposes the bill because it is “disguised to appear to protect individual freedoms, but when examined against reality, its intentional and unintentional damaging consequences become apparent.”
“This bill does nothing to improve academic standards, increase critical thinking or expand the diversity of thought on college campuses,” Gray said. “Instead, it opens the door to the unregulated flow of narrow-minded ideologies that seek to marginalize, rather than to include in silence, rather than discuss.”
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