DEI lives to fight another day at the University of Wyoming

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon's flurry of vetoes last weekend included something unexpected: a line-item veto that allowed the legislature's decision to axe $1.7 million in state funding for the Univerity of Wyoming's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) but would allow the school to use its own funds for diversity-related programs.

In his veto letter to Wyoming's Secretary of State, Chuck Gray, Gordon explained that the bill had “inadvertently put millions of dollars of federal grants that regularly flow to the University at risk" because the recipients of the funds must offer opportunities to those "underserved and underrepresented populations" including military veterans, first-generation college students, Native Americans, and people impacted by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Gordon also suggested that the Cowboy State's Legislature might be using an antiquated definition for DEI. "These grant-required inclusion efforts are much broader than LGBTQ+ or others that our Legislature may believe are the only populations for which inclusion efforts are intended," he said.

DEI initiatives, aimed at preventing discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity, have widespread support throughout the U.S. but remain the subject of a contentious conservative debate within the Republican party criticizing the teaching of affirmative action and critical race theory in colleges and universities.

More: Affirmative action wars hit the workplace: Conservatives target 'woke' DEI programs

Former President Donald Trump told a crowd of cheering supporters in New Hampshire in January, “We will terminate every diversity, equity, and inclusion program across the entire federal government,” the former president declared to a packed auditorium.

It was more than just a popular applause line at Trump rallies. Behind the scenes, a coalition of dozens of conservative groups is preparing to make the words of the presumptive GOP nominee a reality.

More: Emotions run high as Nebraska becomes latest state caught in crosshairs of DEI initiatives

Before the governor's line-item veto, around 100 students and faculty packed into the Board of Trustees meeting, and an overflow room, dwarfing the usual crowd of around a dozen spectators to discuss the future of DEI at the University of Wyoming.

Stephen Dillon, director of the School's Center of Culture, Gender, and Social Justice, testified about the potential effects of such defunding on academic freedom.

“A curious thing started happening at my previous institution. We started having an unbelievable amount of transfer applications from students in Florida ... they described themselves as exiles, unable to research, read, think, or exist how they wanted to,” Dillon said and expressed concerns that restricting DEI work could help fuel a similar exodus from the University of Wyoming.

While over 25 students, faculty, and community members spoke at the Board of Trustees meeting and in an earlier public comment session, nobody showed up to speak in favor of cuts to DEI.

“A university is a place of discussion, an exchange of ideas. And that includes difficult discussions that will push people out of their comfort zones,” said first-year law student Lisa Hoffman. “And this institution should provide resources to support and nurture that, to support and nurture students from all backgrounds.”

More: Alabama lawmakers give final approval to restrictions on 'divisive concepts' in education

As Wyoming's Freedom Caucus gains ground, with DEI in its crosshairs, there is no guarantee that initiatives at the University won't return to the chopping block. UW President Ed Seidel’s response to the governor’s line-item veto, he voiced support for DEI programming, but acknowledged the changing winds of Wyoming politics.

“We certainly will continue to value and serve students, employees, and community members of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and work to make everyone feel welcome. But the message from lawmakers, regardless of the welcomed line-item veto from the Governor, is that our DEI efforts must change, and discussions are underway to determine the best path forward,” Seidel wrote.

While the state's legislative session is over, Wyoming's Freedom Caucus has begun spearheading a push for the legislature to hold a three-day special session, with the goal of overturning Gordon's vetoes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With University of Wyoming DEI under siege, student body fights back