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Oklahoma governor targets DEI programs in 'anti-discrimination' executive order

Gov. Kevin Stitt signs an executive order prohibiting certain DEI programs at state agencies and higher education institutions while lawmakers and others look on.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Gov. Kevin Stitt signs an executive order prohibiting certain DEI programs at state agencies and higher education institutions while lawmakers and others look on.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order Wednesday targeting diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state agencies and institutions of higher education.

The EO prohibits state funds, property or resources from going to certain DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures, programs and mandatory trainings “to the extent they grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, ethnicity or national origin over another’s.”

It also prohibits funding from going to programs that:

  • Mandate a person to swear, certify or agree to a loyalty oath favoring one race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin over another’s.
  • Mandate a person to certify or declare agreement with, recognition of, or adherence to, any particular political, philosophical, religious or other ideological viewpoint.
  • Mandate an applicant for employment to provide a DEI statement or give any applicant preferential consideration based on the applicant providing a DEI statement.
  • Mandate any person to disclose their pronouns.

At the announcement of the EO, Stitt said universities need “to stop sending six-figure salaries to DEI staff,” and spend more on getting students workforce-ready.
“I think we’re doing a disservice to the next generation or to anybody to say that there’s such thing as equal outcomes,” Stitt said. “But we want equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of your race or where you come from, or your background. We want to make sure that’s available for everybody.”

The EO also requires those agencies and institutions of higher education to conduct a review of all DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures and programs. It instructs the institutions to restructure and/or eliminate functions that are “not necessary for compliance, accreditation, or student and employee student services intended to support success broadly.”

As for a timeline, the EO says agencies should become fully compliant “as soon as practicable,” but no later than May 31, 2024. Prior to that date, agencies are ordered to provide a certificate of compliance and a report to state officials describing the entity’s DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures and programs in existence and identify what parts, if any, were restructured or eliminated due to the EO.

If an agency fails to comply, they’ll end up on a list that goes to specific appropriations committees, implying a probable cut in funding.

Stitt said at the signing ceremony the EO “see[s] all Oklahomans as equal, regardless of race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin.”

“We want to teach our young people that based on your merit and your hard work, that’s how you get ahead,” Stitt said. “And we want to make sure that we don’t lie to the next generation. You’re going to have to work hard. Life is not always fair. You’re going to have to persevere through life to get ahead.”

Asked if the EO would limit DEI programs that focus on low income students and veterans, Stitt said the language in the order provides for specific allowances like those situations. The order says it does not prohibit institutions from applying for grants or complying with accreditation requirements that require a statement highlighting its work in supporting first generation college students, students from low-income families, students with unique abilities or “underserved student populations.”

University of Oklahoma student Tamera Nealy spoke at the signing. According to her LinkedIn, Nealy served as an intern for Stitt earlier this year and as a campus coordinator for Turning Point USA. She now works as a correspondent reporter for the Leadership Institute’s campus reform project, which says it trains conservative college students to “out-argue their leftist professors and peers.”

University of Oklahoma student Tamera Nealy tells the crowd at the signing of Gov. Kevin Stitt's executive order targeting DEI programs, "We are all equal in God's eyes."
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma student Tamera Nealy tells the crowd at the signing of Gov. Kevin Stitt's executive order targeting DEI programs, "We are all equal in God's eyes."

Nealy told her story of not doing well on college entrance exams and being discouraged by her “waitlist” status at OU.

“My aunt… she said, ‘That doesn’t mean it’s a no. It just means not yet.’” Nealy said. “It means work harder. And so this [order] is important because it challenges students from all around Oklahoma and the country to not only try, but do your best. And we have to raise the standard.”

Responses from universities and officials

The state’s two largest universities responded with varying interpretations of the policy. OU President Joseph Harroz said in a press release the order eliminates DEI offices at all of the state’s public universities and though it will comply, it still remains committed to access and opportunity for all.

“For many of us, this news evokes deep concern and uncertainty about the future, and in many ways feels like a step backward,” Harroz wrote. “Please be assured that key to our ongoing successes as the state’s flagship university — now and forever — are the foundational values that have served as our constant north star: access and opportunity for all of those with the talent and tenacity to succeed; being a place of belonging for all who attend; dedication to free speech and inquiry; and civility in our treatment of each other.”

A statement from OSU said it was reviewing the new policy.

“We are in the process of reviewing the executive order to ensure we meet our legal obligations while continuing to cultivate a welcoming environment for all students, faculty and staff.”

Sen. Mary Boren’s (D-Norman) office sent a press release that included statements from several Democratic lawmakers. Boren said the order is an affront to Oklahoma’s business communities.

“Every successful entrepreneur and Fortune 500 corporation has invested significant resources in recruiting and retaining the most qualified, diverse and inclusive pool of employees,” Boren wrote. “The governor’s ban is a threat to every economic development strategy in Oklahoma and undermines the employability of business majors throughout Oklahoma.”

Rep. Trish Ranson (D-Stillwater) called into question the governor’s perspective on issues of diversity.

“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies are put in place to deter discrimination of marginalized communities,” Ranson wrote. “The fact that the governor sees this in reverse further illustrates the fact that he’s not experienced true discrimination. We need to let our universities lead the way and work towards better educating all students.”

In a press release, State Superintendent Ryan Walters praised the governor’s actions and called for the “wholesale elimination” of DEI programs.

“DEI should be known as discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination. It does not represent Oklahoma values,” Walters wrote. “Governor Stitt is right for taking a strong step to protect Oklahomans from these discriminatory programs. We must not distort important historical events that push liberal indoctrination, and our curriculum must not teach identity politics.”

The order was filed the same day Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) filed legislation to prohibit the establishment of DEI offices, and to ban hiring or assigning employees to carry out DEI practices, “among other safeguards to ensure students and faculty are not exposed to such concepts,” according to Standridge’s press release.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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