Racist dog whistle escalates to McCarthyism in Kansas attack on college diversity | Opinion

Pat Byrnes/Cagle Cartoons
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

These days, we look back on McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s and wonder: Why did so many good people just stand by as Sen. Joseph McCarthy wrecked so many innocent people’s careers and lives to score political points?

The best answer to that question is another question: Why are we allowing it in Kansas, in 2023?

Kansas Rep. Steven Howe, R-Salina, tore a page out of Tail-Gunner Joe’s playbook in the latest attack on racial equality in the Sunflower State.

Howe, chairman of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, sent a letter via the Legislative Research Department on Jan. 27, demanding that all state-supported colleges and universities name names in a misguided and appalling crusade against equality in higher education.

The demand included:

• A comprehensive list of all staff, programs, and campus activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory.

• Brief description of the program or activity.

• Staff positions, including FTE counts.

• Total funding spent to support the initiative, including total state funding spent to support the initiative.

It’s hard to read that as anything other than a threat to quit talking about racism, or else.

It echoes a similar request from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that led directly to his Feb. 1 announcement of a plan to defund and eventually abolish DEI programs in that state’s college system.

Howe, after getting some pushback from universities about naming names, has backed off that part of his request.

But it’s a distinction without much difference.

First off, most of the names are listed in course catalogs or on the university websites, a throwback to when D, E and I were seen as essential goals of any public institution, and CRT was an obscure graduate-level study on how lingering racism affects governmental systems, not a dog whistle to be blown by political opportunists.

Second, if you defund the programs, you get rid of the people in them — and the people that they attract to the state’s schools.

On Monday, Board of Regents President Blake Flanders told Howe’s committee that Kansas’ student head count has declined from almost 259,000 in 2013 to 219,600 today. The number of full-time students is down from 143,500 to about 123,800.

While the number of white Kansas high school students is declining, the number of minority students is rising.

“We have declining enrollment, and our state’s population growth is seen in (minority) groups that our system has not traditionally served well,” Flanders said. “Our system has to do a better job serving a broader population if we’re going to create economic growth in Kansas and have enough talent for our businesses to stay in Kansas and succeed.”

One of the few institutions bucking the declining enrollment trend is Wichita State University. WSU President Rick Muma told the committee a big part of that is expanding out-of-state recruitment, including offering in-state tuition across borders.

Minorities are one out of every four WSU students and Latino students are the largest growth group, 16% today and projected to be more than 25% by 2030. “We will be a full Hispanic-serving university by the end of the decade, just by looking at the trajectory,” Muma said.

Against that backdrop, efforts like Howe’s are the absolute worst thing the Legislature can do to Kansas’ higher-education system.

It sends a nationwide signal to prospective minority students: Don’t come here. We wouldn’t like you and you probably wouldn’t like us either.

And it sends a message to Kansas high school graduates: If you’re a promising minority student, you’ll probably be more valued and happier in some other state’s college system.

That’s the price of attacking diversity, equity and inclusion. And the only payoff goes to craven politicians.

The colleges’ and universities’ best response to requests like Howe’s would be a two-word expression ending in “off.” I can’t put it in the newspaper, but Chef Gordon Ramsay says it all the time on his TV shows.

Kansas higher education officials can’t say it either. Howe and his committee hold the purse strings over their payroll.

But do remember this: If the people of Wisconsin had said it to Joe McCarthy when he was just starting out, they’d have done the whole country a solid.