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OU planned DEI changes months before Stitt’s order, expecting political action, records show

OU Campus Evans Hall
Kyle Phillips
/
For Oklahoma Voice
OU Campus Evans Hall

Within hours of a Dec. 13 executive order from the governor, the University of Oklahoma announced it was left with no choice but to eliminate its diversity, equity and inclusion office.

The announcement sent shockwaves through a campus that had worked for years with these programs to move beyond incidents of racism.

But what many didn’t know in December is the university had been working quietly for months on a blueprint for how it would rename and comprehensively restructure its DEI division, according to records Oklahoma Voice obtained in an open records request.

Email records and the university’s media office confirmed that discussions of a potential restructuring started as OU administrators braced for political backlash from the state Capitol against DEI initiatives, as programs that rose to prominence during an era of racial reckoning faced the chopping block in other conservative states.

“The university has been diligently working to assess the implications of this executive order while actively engaging with the campus community and key stakeholders,” OU said in a statement through its media office this week. “We are committed to keeping the community informed throughout this process.”

OU did not answer questions about which DEI services it intends to keep and did not make any officials available for interview.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order requires higher education institutions to review all DEI programs and eliminate any that aren’t required for accreditation, compliance and services that “support success broadly.”

He sought to shift universities’ focus away from race and urged them to highlight first-generation students, veterans, low-income students and students of unique abilities.

The order prohibits state agencies and colleges from using state funds for DEI initiatives “to the extent they grant preferential treatment based on one person’s particular race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin over another’s.”

Registered student organizations would not be affected.

OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. announced Feb. 20 that the DEI office will convert into the Division of Access and Opportunity, and it will “continue to ensure that the University of Oklahoma is a place of belonging for all.”

Conversations of DEI changes started in May, employee says

Five months before Stitt’s order, the head of OU’s DEI division contacted Harroz with “information regarding the rebranding and reorganization of the DEI at OU,” according to a July 10 email.

A Sept. 28 message shows OU leaders considered transitioning the DEI office into a center focused on first-generation college students.

OU staff discussed a new name and structure for the division that would contain a new First Generation Center and four other offices already existing at the university: the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center, the Testing Center, a Veteran Resource Center and a TRIO Center, according to an Oct. 31 email.

OU Chief Diversity Officer Belinda Higgs Hyppolite informed staff as far back as May that a restructuring of her division might be coming, said a university employee familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears of reprisal at work.

Higgs Hyppolite at the time said political action against DEI was likely to happen in Oklahoma, as it had in other Republican-led states, so OU needed to prepare to reorganize the division, the employee recalled.

It was unclear then, as it is now, exactly which of the DEI office’s functions would be preserved, the employee said.

Staff have pushed back against the First Generation Center concept because it could be duplicative with similar programs that already exist at OU, including federal TRIO programs, the employee said. The idea might not apply evenly across OU’s three campuses, either, the person said.

While Texas and Florida barred public colleges from spending money on DEI, Stitt and other Oklahoma leaders signaled they would support a similar policy.

Internal emails show the university was aware of impending political action in the days before Stitt’s order. In a Dec. 8 email, Higgs Hyppolite acknowledged an upcoming rebrand of her division’s workshops and trainings in preparation for “the future changes we know are coming.”

“Right now, nothing has changed, but leaders across the division have been asked to prepare their team now for when the change is required by law,” she wrote.

Five days later, Stitt signed his executive order after consulting with colleges and universities to ensure it wouldn’t compromise their accreditation or research.

Amari Williams, a junior at OU, said she isn’t concerned that the university prepared changes to its DEI office in advance, given the precedent in other conservative states.

But the state’s political environment and lack of understanding around DEI is worrisome, said Williams, the director of the Black Emergency Response Team at OU. The group, also called BERT, formed in 2019 to respond to incidents of racism on campus.

State lawmakers already have banned mandatory diversity training at universities, barred some topics of race and gender from K-12 schools, and passed several anti-LGBTQ laws.

There’s “a lot of uncertainty” on the Norman campus of what impact the changes will have, but Williams said she believes the university will try to maintain the same services, even if they’re called something different.

“As long as we’re preserving that level of advocacy and inclusion for people, no matter the name, there will be space for minority people on campus to feel safe,” Williams said.

For Williams, DEI events have been especially meaningful, not only to celebrate different cultures and to promote student success, but also as spaces where minority students can gather and be recognized.

While trying to foster an inclusive campus environment, the division’s employees administer diversity and cultural competency training, coordinate cultural events, offer scholarships and sponsorships to student groups, and give recommendations on how to respond to reported incidents of bias, among other resources.

“It’s just given me a place to go for guidance,” Williams said.

Statewide, DEI programs cost less than 1% of all higher education spending. Colleges in the state use these programs to support students of color, military veterans, first-generation students, international students, single parents and LGBTQ+ students, among others.

OU, OSU rebrand their diversity offices

All DEI positions at OU will be eliminated as a result of the executive order, but no staff will lose their jobs, Harroz announced in a campus-wide letter Feb. 20. Instead, employees will shift into roles that “support our community broadly.”

After Stitt issued his order, Harroz announced the governor’s action would effectively eliminate the university’s DEI office — a distinctly different response from that of other colleges in the state.

Oklahoma State University President Kayse Shrum said an initial review of the order didn’t indicate any significant changes would be needed, according to a campus-wide message she sent after Stitt’s order.

However, OSU changed the name of its Office of Institutional Diversity last month to the Division of Access and Community Impact.

OSU declined to say whether the governor’s order prompted the change or whether it reflects further alterations within the division. The university said the broad scope of the name better reflects its commitment to welcoming and empowering students from all walks of life.

Other higher education institutions are still reviewing what impact the executive order could have on their DEI programs, but none have “taken that big leap like OU did,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

The ACLU called Stitt’s order unconstitutional and OU’s response “startling” because it “apparently skipped to the worst possible outcome and decided to eliminate all its DEI programs,” according to a statement it released with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Schulte Roth & Zabel.

Even as the reorganizations continue, at least one Republican at the Capitol hopes to further dismantle DEI efforts during the ongoing legislative session.

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, said he believes universities will repackage the same programs under a different title.

He said the executive order has “zero power” to effectively eliminate DEI.

Standridge, an OU graduate, filed multiple anti-DEI bills in the state Senate this year, but none so far have been given a hearing in a legislative committee.

“It’s exactly DEI under a different name,” Standridge said of OU’s changes. “It all sounds good, but there’s people harmed in it. Just let students and faculty come in and let the better man or woman win.”

That hasn’t been the experience for Williams, the OU student. To her, DEI supports groups that historically have been underserved.

“It’s kind of like an escalator, bringing those who have been underrepresented up to that level with everyone else,” Williams said. “It’s not really prioritizing anyone, especially when not everybody starts from the same starting line.”

Janelle Stecklein and Carmen Forman contributed to this report.

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Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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