Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) explains a bill he is sponsoring on the Senate floor Feb. 22, 2023. Senate Bill 81 would open the door to criminal liability for the distribution of “obscene” content by school and public libraries, with elected officials allowed to have the final say. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
Arkansas officials are collecting information on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts at colleges and universities in preparation for presenting legislation on the issue during the 2025 legislative session.
At a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council’s higher education subcommittee on Thursday, co-chair Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, told lawmakers that officials are looking at DEI and how it’s embedded into policies and curricula. Universities have completed a survey on the topic, he said, and information about where DEI statements exist in policy will be released in a couple of weeks.
“We met with a lot of our higher ed folks just a few minutes ago, and we all agree we’re going to work together to do this,” Sullivan said. “This is not just an individual project, but we’re going to work together to make sure that the things that we do are based on merit and need. That’s the primary purpose of this. We want students to achieve. We want our staff and our folks to be on the same page.”
Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, a former teacher and member of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, asked who Sullivan meant by “we” when referring to the people working on this effort.
“I’m inviting you to be a part of the ‘we.’ You can not take the invitation, but we the Legislature is the legislative branch that comes up with legislation,” Sullivan said.
“Oh, now that you started it, believe me I shall be,” Chesterfield said.
Sullivan said the higher ed committee will work with Sen. Kim Hammer, a Republican member of the Senate Education Committee and the Joint Performance Review committee, who he said “works a lot with these similar issues.”
There will be joint meetings and individual meetings, and the effort will include the governor’s office and “all the higher ed folks,” Sullivan said.
Asked by Chesterfield about the impetus for the study, Sullivan said people inside and outside of the Legislature, including himself, have voiced concerns about DEI and “that some of our actions are not necessarily based upon merit and need.”
Sullivan sponsored a bill to end state-sponsored affirmative action earlier this year, which he described as ending discrimination. It died on the House floor the last week of the legislative session after several passionate speeches from members of both parties against the bill. The legislation was recommended for study in the Senate’s Interim Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
Sullivan said the DEI study he discussed in Thursday’s meeting is motivated by “specific legislation that’ll be coming forward in 2025.”
“There are several states already that have very similar legislation that we’ll be working with in order to draft the legislation, but this body, the higher ed committee, is going to have a lot to say about that interaction, as will our universities and higher ed folks, about what that legislation looks like specifically,” he said.
Arkansas officials have expressed growing opposition to DEI initiatives this year. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order on her first day in office that prohibits the “indoctrination” of public school students with ideologies, like Critical Race Theory, which is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas. The language is mirrored in the LEARNS Act, Sanders’ signature education legislation.
Charles Robinson, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s first Black chancellor, announced in June the dissolution of the university’s DEI Division. Existing resources and personnel assigned to the DEI Division are being incorporated into other areas this fall.
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