Legislative hearing on DEI in Arkansas higher ed scheduled for today

Officials from six institutions will testify before Arkansas lawmakers

By: - October 16, 2023 7:30 am
Old Main at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville

University of Arkansas (Courtesy photo)

Arkansas lawmakers on Monday will discuss the results of an inquiry into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices at higher education institutions requested by a state senator considering legislation on the topic in 2025.

Surveys and questionnaires were sent to a dozen four-year institutions, some of whom noted a yes or no response would not adequately answer the questions. University officials also said the elimination of DEI efforts could threaten their accreditation status, which could lead to a loss of federal funding and federal student aid. 

Arkansas senator discusses plans for DEI legislation in 2025 session

The Arkansas Legislative Council in August authorized a study of DEI in Arkansas colleges and universities to be completed by the end of 2024. The study was requested by Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Jonesboro who sponsored a bill this year to end state-sponsored affirmative action, 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.

Some but not all of the Arkansas institutions surveyed will answer questions from the ALC Higher Education Subcommittee and Joint Performance Review on Monday. 

Arkansas Tech University, for example, was not called to testify because there were no questions about the institution’s responses to two surveys, Director of University Relations Sam Strasner told the Advocate Thursday.

DEI Survey Respondents 

  • Arkansas State University
  • Arkansas Tech University
  • Henderson State University
  • Southern Arkansas University
  • University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
  • University of Arkansas–Fort Smith
  • University of Arkansas Grantham
  • University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • University of Arkansas at Monticello
  • University of Arkansas Pine Bluff
  • University of Central Arkansas
  • University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

“ATU is committed to complying with state law while simultaneously ensuring access for students and meeting the requirements set forth by our accrediting bodies,” Strasner said. “We look forward to the results of the meeting on Monday and the additional clarity that it and any subsequent actions will bring to our statewide conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion programs on state-assisted university campuses in Arkansas.”

The Arkansas universities that received the surveys and questionnaires were asked several questions, including whether they have a DEI dean, whether DEI is a component of their strategic plan and whether they have any personnel or committees dedicated to DEI. 

Institutions were also asked if they have a law, engineering or medical program and if so, to provide the average test scores of admitted students by race and ethnicity.

Additionally, schools were asked to provide every job listing from the last five years that required a DEI statement as well as a list of all majors, minors and certificates that contain the word “studies” in the title, such as Gender Studies.

Ten of the schools reported incorporating DEI into their strategic plans. Henderson State University and the University of Arkansas Grantham, a public online university, were the only two that did not.

The University of Central Arkansas was the sole school that reported having DEI dean. However, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences noted it has a vice chancellor of DEI, while the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has an interim vice chancellor. 

Some schools stated they are changing DEI policies and positions. Arkansas Tech University, for example, changed the title and duties of the Associate Dean of Diversity & Inclusion to the Dean for Multicultural Student Services who focuses on supporting international and English as a Second Language students. 

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said it plans to eliminate the terms diversity, equity and inclusion from its programs.

The UAMS medical sciences campus on Markham Street in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Charles Robinson, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s first Black chancellor, announced the dissolution of the university’s DEI Division in June. Existing resources and personnel assigned to the DEI Division are being incorporated into other areas this fall.

These changes come amid growing opposition to DEI initiatives. In Arkansas, 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.

At the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions

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Accreditation concerns

As part of the legislative inquiry, institutions were asked to identify which accreditors require DEI personnel or policies, and which programs could be at risk of losing funding if these standards aren’t met.

Organizations like the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) include components of diversity and inclusion in their standards, and being out of compliance with those requirements puts an institution at risk of losing accreditation, according to ATU’s response.

Those requirements could change though, ATU noted, because the state of Arkansas is planning to move away from CAEP accreditation for educator preparation programs and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has also indicated a move in 2024 away from requiring DEI programming. 

“However, I have not heard that HLC or our healthcare accreditors will be moving away from requiring DEI programming,” an ATU official wrote.

Arkansas State University is concerned about losing federal funds if it loses HLC accreditation. During a June visit, HLC gave ASU’s Henderson State University campus a “met with concerns” designation for a standard that requires that “the institution’s processes and activities demonstrate inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations.” 

At the time of the site visit, the accreditation team said “there were no coordinated efforts to promote diversity, inclusivity and equity among faculty and staff,” according to ASU. 

“Interviews with faculty and staff suggest that this is a high priority that has not been adequately addressed,” the accreditation team said. “They note that there is no office or person to whom concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusivity can be reported and issues resolved.”

Additionally, as part of formal action against ASUMountain Home, ASU was required to submit an interim report in September that demonstrated the university’s “renewed commitment to minority recruitment and retention, with a particular emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity,” according to a letter from HLC

ASU officials noted in their response to Arkansas lawmakers this would affect the accreditation of the entire university. 

Other schools reported less concern with losing accreditation. In its response, Southern Arkansas University officials said “a yes/no answer to losing accreditation may be extreme,” but said institutions could be cited for “not considering the value of diverse inclusion in higher education.”

University of Central Arkansas Director of Media Relations Fredricka Sharkey told the Advocate Thursday that “based on current discussions, we feel that our accreditation standards and concerns will not be compromised.” 

“We look forward to meeting with our colleagues in the Arkansas Legislature for an informative, collaborative conversation,” Sharkey said. “We will be prepared to answer questions and showcase the important work that is being done at UCA.” 


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.