USC strips diversity language from office. SC lawmakers have dueling concerns

The University of South Carolina no longer has an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Following an attempt to defund DEI efforts in public higher education at the state General Assembly, the school has reorganized and renamed the office to create the Division of Access, Civil Rights and Community Engagement. State lawmakers are skeptical of the change.

In an email sent out to the campus last week, USC announced that Julian Williams, once the the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, is now the vice president for access, civil rights and community engagement.

USC’s DEI office served a wide range of students and faculty, according to The State’s previous reporting. Though DEI is often associated with race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, it also encompassed religion, economic, veteran and disability statuses.

Earlier this year, Williams told The State that his office was essential to student well-being and success.

“That sense of inclusion, that sense of belonging is really what drives the college experience,” Williams told The State. “When they feel that their university is home for them, … they do better in class, they stick around, they remain connected.”

Williams declined to comment for this story.

University spokesman Jeff Stensland said the reorganization will bring together three university functions: compliance and prevention efforts addressed by the USC Office of Civil Rights and Title IX; coordination and expansion of USC’s community engagement efforts; and efforts to enhance access and create opportunities for all current and future students, regardless of their backgrounds.

No staff members lost their job in the shuffle, Stensland said, and existing staff will now be housed within the new division.

Stensland declined to comment on why the decision was made.

The future of key DEI projects, like USC’s 2020 Revision Action Plan, is unclear. The six step plan addressing diversity, equity and inclusion was established “to better address long-standing issues of systemic racism and societal inequity.” It included goals like prioritizing diverse recruitment, implementing diversity training and education and renaming buildings whose namesakes had racist backgrounds.

Rep. Ivory Thigpen, a Richland County Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he has no issue with the name of the new division itself as long as the work of the former DEI office continues. He said it might “recapture a runaway train.”

“I think in many instances these words have been become sound bites and catch phrases for political and partisan division,” Thigpen said. “By changing the name, but not the mission, it very well may allow for less distractions.”

Still, he worries that DEI efforts, which became a “political football” during the most recent legislative session, will disappear from the university. He said he hopes the name wasn’t changed to appease the “misguided assumptions of extremists.”

“I am leery,” Thigpen said. “What I don’t want to see happen is for there to be political and partisan pressure for (the university) to stop doing the work.”

Following similar moves from conservatives in states like Florida and Oklahoma earlier this year, some South Carolina lawmakers requested that each of the state’s public colleges and universities provide the amount of money being funneled toward diversity, equity and inclusion. The request asked for policies, programming and training that referenced race, color, ethnicity or sexual orientation and concepts like social justice and intersectionality, among others. In the request, legislators called these ideas “widely contested.”

At the time, USC stood by its DEI program, saying that it helps better prepare students for their future careers and contributes to the “vibrancy” of college life.

“We are proud of the diversity across our campuses,” USC President Michael Amiridis wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to the Commission on Higher Education. “Our DEI efforts not only foster a culture of caring but also help individuals become more connected with the larger campus community.”

According to data collected by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education and obtained by The State, USC spent more than $1.7 million on DEI during its previous fiscal year. All SC public colleges and universities spent a total of $8.3 million.

When lawmakers were crafting the 2023-2024 state budget, the House Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative group of Republicans, attempted to prohibit the state from appropriating millions of dollars to the state’s public colleges and universities for their DEI programs. Caucus members argued that unconscious bias and anti-racism training are being forced onto university faculty, staff and students and that DEI is unnecessarily influencing grading, hiring and evaluation practices.

The group’s efforts were unsuccessful. But the conversation isn’t over, said Rep. R.J. May, a Lexington Republican and vice chair of the House Freedom Caucus.

Replacing DEI language might not save USC and other institutions from further attempts to strip public funding.

“USC can call it whatever they want, it’s just racist nonsense that they’re indoctrinating our students with,” May said. “I’m surprised they felt that they needed to rebrand, given that the state legislature is full of moderate, milquetoast, do-nothing Republicans.”

On the other hand, May said he sees the change as an attempt to “circumvent the will of the people” by giving DEI a new name.

“I’m sure the university hopes that this rebranding will relieve some pressure, but I assure you that members of the Freedom Caucus won’t be fooled.” May said. “I don’t care what you call it. ... At the end of the day, DEI, or similarly-named programs seek to undermine our South Carolina and American values.”

A bill regarding DEI was filed in April and referred to the education and works committee. The bill would require colleges and universities to annually report the number of administrative and nonteaching positions that are associated with DEI initiatives. It would also prohibit these institutions from making diversity training mandatory or requiring diversity statements for admission or employment. The bill also made a point to prohibit schools from granting preference for admission or employment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The legality of college admission decisions based on race, better known as affirmative action, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. But USC officials told The State that admissions policies did not include provisions for race anyway.

May said that House leadership has made a commitment to tackle the bill in the upcoming legislative session.