Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) listens to his colleagues discuss House Bill 1156, which would make students’ gender assigned at birth the determining factor of which restrooms and changing rooms they can use, on the Senate floor on March 13, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday authorized a subcommittee to conduct a study regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in Arkansas colleges and universities by the end of 2024.
The study was requested by ALC Higher Education subcommittee co-chair Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, who on Thursday announced plans to study the issue with the intention of proposing legislation during the 2025 legislative session.
Sullivan’s motion was seconded by Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, a retired educator and member of the Arkansas Black Legislative Caucus. Chesterfield noted some may be surprised by her support of the motion, but said she was just as interested as Sullivan in examining how Arkansas is doing in terms of “making sure that the colleges and universities across this state are inclusive of all people.”
“I don’t have the same amount of zealotry as my colleague does on this issue, but having desegregated an institution, I’m quite interested to see what the demographics are of our colleges and universities because it is important that we allow every citizen in this state possible to have a shot at a quality public education,” she said.
Chesterfield was the first African American student to graduate from Hendrix College in Conway. She’s one of four Black lawmakers in the Arkansas Senate.
No lawmakers voted against the motion, but Sullivan objected to Chesterfield’s comments.
“I take exception to the labeling of a zealot,” he said. “This is good information for all the people of Arkansas and if we’re looking for the betterment and the benefit of all the people of the state, then the labeling as a zealot I think is inappropriate. But yes, I’m all for everyone in the state taking an opportunity and all the legislators having the opportunity to discuss this issue.”
During Thursday’s meeting of ALC’s higher ed subcommittee, Sullivan said Arkansas universities have completed a survey and information about where DEI statements exist in policy will be released in a few weeks.
In response to Chesterfield’s question Thursday about the impetus for the research, 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 also said Thursday that the study will inform “specific legislation that’ll be coming forward in 2025.” Arkansas lawmakers will work on the effort with other states that have created similar legislation, he said.
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.
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