The UAMS medical sciences campus on Markham Street in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Officials representing six Arkansas universities told lawmakers Monday that their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts support the recruitment and retention of students from various backgrounds and do not include lowered admission standards for certain groups.
Members of the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Higher Education subcommittee and Joint Performance Review listened to testimony for more than three hours as part of an ongoing inquiry into diversity, equity and inclusion practices at the state’s institutions of higher education. The majority of the questions came from Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Jonesboro and subcommittee chair who requested a study in preparation for proposing legislation on the topic in 2025.
“We’re trying to gain information — what’s the value of DEI in our higher ed institutions, when and how is it implemented,” Sullivan said. “A lot of us just aren’t familiar with the expanse and where it’s implemented. So again this is just for discussion purposes and help us learn what’s going on.”
Among other things, Sullivan asked education officials how many employees and how much funds their schools devote to DEI, how much latitude they have in meeting diversity standards required by accreditors and why DEI is needed when the U.S. Constitution declares “all men are created equal.”
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, a former social studies teacher, noted that phrase is included in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution whose preamble calls on the people of the United States to “form a more perfect Union.”
“Equality does not exist. None of us in this room are the same,” Chesterfield said. “We’re all unique, we come from unique backgrounds…when we’re trying to form a more perfect union, we need to understand that while we are created equally, we are not the same.”
Chesterfield, one of two Black women in the Arkansas Senate, noted that while Thomas Jefferson wrote about all men being equal in the Declaration of Independence, he was a slave owner, and when the Constitution established how to address taxation and representation, African Americans were counted as three-fifths of a white person.
“We can learn from what we’ve done in the past…but as we look at DEI, and it’s become a pejorative, what we’re actually saying is we’re going to try,” Chesterfield said. “We may not make it, but we’re going to try. Not at the expense of anybody else, but we’re going to try.”
Monday’s hearing comes amid growing pushback against DEI efforts at the state and national level. Sullivan, who sponsored legislation this year to end state-sponsored affirmative action, said students should be considered on merit and need. His bill died on the House floor after bipartisan pushback.
University officials said Monday that while they have goals for improving diversity among students and faculty, those are targets and not quotas, a term Sullivan used. They also told Sullivan that admissions standards are static and are not lowered to increase admission from certain groups.
When asked by Chesterfield, officials from all six schools said no white student has ever been rejected from their institution in favor of admitting a minority student.
Arkansas State University Chancellor Todd Shields said admission requirements are standard, but once a student is admitted, you have to differentiate the need between students in order to help them succeed. Shields said Lonnie Williams serves as ASU’s vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion and community engagement because he wants to be reminded of the importance of serving the unique needs of all students.
“My logic is if a CEO thinks something is very important, then the CEO would want someone paid to tell them and remind them of that goal everyday and that’s what Lonnie does everyday — to make sure I’m reminded that veterans, women in STEM, rural students, students from conservative backgrounds, whatever students there, they feel valued and are we providing what they need to be successful,” Shields said.
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Education officials said their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are focused on student success and recruitment efforts. Officials at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law said it’s important to expose students from underserved communities to fields like health care and law to help fill gaps in service. Arkansas is a rural state, and many rural communities lack access to health care and legal services, they said.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said a community can’t be “highly successful” without health care, so UAMS has to recruit from underserved areas because that’s likely the best way to find people who will return to and care for those communities.
“We can be upset about the letters [DEI], but…I would be upset with you if you weren’t doing that because it would be a disservice to rural Arkansas, majority-minority areas in this state that, again, will not be successful if you’re not recruiting kids and sending them back in those areas to take care of their citizens,” Dismang said. “If you sit and listen, I don’t understand what else you could possibly hear from our standpoint.”
Sullivan asked if universities have a list of “underserved” groups and what qualifies a group as “overserved.”
UAMS Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Brian Gittens said it’s a matter of parity. There are those who are being served, and those who are not are underserved.
University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis said underrepresented is a better phrase to use.
“Of recent, those underrepresented groups have been male — been very difficult to find males on the college campuses — veterans, low-income, what we call the murky middle, middle-income, non-traditional students,” Davis said. “So by all means, I think that what are we doing to be able to reach those underrepresented populations and to me, that’s how higher education is living out those ideals that are in that Constitution.”
In responses to a legislative survey and questionnaire, universities noted that many accreditation bodies require elements of DEI in their standards. Some institutions said they were concerned about losing federal funds if they lost accreditation for not meeting those DEI standards.
Sullivan had several questions about the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s social work program, which he said seemed to reference diversity, equity and inclusion more heavily than other programs. UALR officials, who noted they were not from the social work school, said it’s likely because social workers need to be prepared to serve a variety of people.
“I don’t know that any profession has a responsibility to the public to be more empathetic or sympathetic than any other profession,” Sullivan said. “I hear what you’re saying, but I’d have to think that through a little more.”
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked about differing requirements among accrediting organizations and how Arkansas could get a seat at the table in terms of accreditation requirements. UALR Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Erin Finzer said each accrediting body is independent and DEI may be valued differently in their standards.
With regard to the social work program, the state requires accreditation through one specific accreditation organization. Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, said if the requirement is through statute, the General Assembly has the power to change that.
Sullivan said more discussions are likely to take place in the future as lawmakers continue to get a better understanding of DEI in the state.
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