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OU to close Gender + Equality Center, rename multicultural programs, services

Nyk Daniels

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students David Surratt told student leaders Wednesday afternoon that OU’s Gender + Equality Center will close and the Division of Student Affairs will see several changes following the spring semester as a result of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s December executive order calling for a review of diversity, equity and inclusion programming and services in higher education.

During a meeting with the Vice President’s Advisory Council, which is a group of student leaders that meets with the aim of connecting students and university officials, Surratt said there are two big changes coming to the division, one of them being the closing of the GEC.

“The GEC as it stands will close,” Surratt said.

The GEC was formerly known as the Women’s Outreach Center and was opened in 1999 to serve female students. The center later took on services such as OU Advocates, which is a group of staff trained to respond and support students experiencing sexual assault or violence. The GEC’s current mission is to support students on campus through education, interpersonal violence prevention, advocacy for victims of gender-based violence and support and programming focused on 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion.

Surratt said with the closure of the GEC, the division will launch an Office of Advocacy and Education. This office will house services focused on sexual assault and sexual violence prevention and response, health-related education programs and outreach and will oversee the OU Food Pantry. OU Advocates will be included in the services provided in this new office.

During a question and answer session at the meeting, Surratt said the use of the word "advocacy" in the office's title could be triggering or suggest some sort of behavior or services within the office that do not follow the executive order. However, he said when he and his team thought about it more, the word advocacy is essential to the work that office and staff does to support students who have experienced sexual violence.

“Yes, I'm worried. …,” Surratt said about using the word advocacy in the office’s name. “We literally have a program called OU Advocates that is responsive to folks who are survivors or victims of sexual violence and it's important for those folks who call in and need support and resources and help.

“So for me, I was willing to go ahead and say, ‘If you're really against advocacy, you're literally attacking gender-based violence programs that have been in existence for a while and supporting our entire campus community.’”

Kesha Keith, director of strategic initiatives in the Division of Student Affairs, wrote in an email to OU Daily on Thursday to further add context to the naming of the office. Keith wrote that advocacy should not be misconstrued as combative but rather a crucial element of student support.

"Advocacy is integral to our support system at the university, especially for students impacted by sexual violence," Keith wrote. "It's about providing essential help and resources to those in need. Removing 'advocacy' would undermine the support for gender-based violence programs that have been supporting our campus community effectively for years."

Surratt said during the question and answer section of the VPAC meeting that advocacy to him is about student support and assisting students, and he’s been educating others about how advocacy does not mean combating the university.

The services within the GEC focused on 2SLGBTQ+ programming, such as the program coordinator, will move under Student Life.

Along with changes to the GEC and the opening of a new office, the division will also be renaming the Office of Student Life’s Multicultural Programs and Services to Community Engagement.

Coordinators in this office who previously held titles or roles overseeing specific identity groups’ programs and services will be renamed to community engagement coordinators. All multicultural student organizations and the LGBTQ+ Student Alliance will be housed under this sect of Student Life.

“It was important for us to redefine and make sure that the scope of those services are not confused,” Surratt said. “They serve all students. … Broadening the scope of it and the name of it to make sure it’s indicative of the kind of broad function of what we should be doing and what we have been doing basically for student involvement (and) leadership on campus.”

Stitt signed the executive order in December, requiring state agencies and universities to review the necessity and efficiency of DEI positions, departments, activities, procedures and programs.

Since then, OU has changed its Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to the Division of Access and Opportunity and those offices located in Copeland Hall have been closed for the remainder of the spring semester.

OU also launched a website to provide updates and answer frequently asked questions about the order. The website read that offices focused on serving 2SLGBTQ+ students likely violate the order.

At a January meeting with VPAC, OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. told student leaders and university officials in the room that nobody would lose their job at the university as a result of the executive order. Harroz said at the time that OU will continue to support and uplift diversity as it is a central value and pillar of the university.

Diversity is specifically mentioned in OU’s Lead On, University Strategic Plan, which will be reviewed and altered this summer and fall, Harroz told OU Daily during a sit-down interview this month.

The executive order allows for specific exemptions, such as registered student organizations which do not have to follow the order.

Surratt said during the question and answers session that these changes or shifts are not the last or final changes to be had due to the executive order. Surratt said the Division of Student Affairs wanted to be as transparent as possible with students on campus, even if all changes are not official or have not been finalized.

Keith wrote that more adjustments will come, and the university is already planning more changes.

"We're exploring various ways to effectively communicate these changes campus-wide," Keith wrote. "Our aim is to comply with the order while maintaining our core values and ensuring that the level of support for our students remains unchanged."

Surratt also said during the question and answers session that the university wants to ensure new students and returning students are able to find these services still even if they’re under a new name or housed in a different sect of campus. He said OU is brainstorming ways to broadcast these changes more broadly and is thinking through more changes to come.

Keith wrote that the division and university wants to help new and returning students access services and be updated on broader changes as a result of the executive order.

"We are committed to being transparent with our students about these upcoming changes,” Keith wrote. "Our goal is to ensure that both new and returning students can easily access these services, regardless of the changes in name or location."

The university and academic colleges will also make changes ahead of the May 31 deadline, in which OU is required to sign a letter of attestation saying it has complied with the order.

Surratt said during the question and answers session that the executive order has leeway, especially for student groups and programming, so his hope is though these changes are coming and will take adjustment, he hopes students’ level of support from the university does not decrease.

“How do we comply with the order while also kind of maintaining both our values and also support for our students and the way we kind of function for you all? …” Surratt said during the VPAC meeting Wednesday. “Ideally from a student perspective, and my hope is that how you're served by the institution is not drastically impacted.”

Keith wrote the broader changes to the division are made to still offer students the service and support they need while at the university.

"The essence of our mission is to ensure that the quality of service and support we provide is not compromised by these changes," Keith wrote.

Closures on a national level

Since 2023, state legislators across the U.S. and Congress have introduced 84 anti-DEI bills as of April 25. Some of these bills would prohibit universities from having DEI offices or staff, mandatory diversity training, diversity statements or identity-based preferences for hiring or admissions.

Texas banned diversity, equity and inclusion at public institutions of higher education via Senate Bill 17, which went into effect on Jan. 1. As a result of the law, universities shuttered offices and services for various identity-based student groups.

University of Texas at Austin laid off nearly 50 employees who worked in DEI spaces at the university and closed its Division of Campus and Community Engagement to comply with the new law. Texas A&M University closed its Office of Diversity in 2023 and reassigned the staff in that office to other duties. In August 2023, the University of Houston closed its LGBTQ Resource Center and its Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Maria Gonzalez, a University of Houston English professor, said legislative attacks on DEI, such as Texas SB 17 or Oklahoma’s executive order, are devastating for college campuses.

Gonzalez was among the core group of faculty and students who helped first establish the LGBTQ Resource Center on the University of Houston’s campus, and she said while it has been disheartening to lose that safe space, the way students can combat DEI-banning bills like Texas SB 17 and the executive order is to continue to meet and advocate for their interests.

“These people know what they're doing by shutting us down,” Gonzalez told OU Daily in March. “They've done the research, and our job is to double down.”

She said in the wake of the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center closing, student groups, faculty and alumni groups have taken on more responsibility for providing resources and community for students.

Gonzalez said similar programming to OU’s GEC was at the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center. Nearly all programming was wiped.

Gonzalez said, while anti-DEI legislation remove designated safe spaces in schools and universities, legislatures will never be able to remove the passion and drive of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

“They want to outlaw LGBTQ+ people, they want to erase us.” Gonzalez said. “Well, they can't.”

This article was originally published by OU Daily.

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