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In his State of the State address last month, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt moved through several common GOP talking points: support for school choice, a ban on all gender transition surgeries and hormone therapies for minors and continuing a tradition of business-friendly policies. 

And he singled out the state’s two largest public universities: “Because when we send our kids to college, we expect our tuition to pay for their education, not their indoctrination,” Stitt said. “I want our universities to have less DEI officers and more career placement counselors.” 

For some political observers, the attention to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, DEI for short, sounded like another talking point drawn from the war on everything that’s not white, male, heterosexual or conservative. Oklahoma has introduced 35 bills targeting LGBTQ rights this legislative session alone — the most of any state, according to a tracker by the American Civil Liberties Union

Two years ago, Oklahoma was among the first to ban public schools from teaching critical race theory, a legal theory that examines how systemic racism has resulted in persistent racial inequalities. The term has become a code word among Republicans — and especially those on the far-right wing of the party — to avoid teaching history that addresses the outsized role of racism over the past two and a half centuries. The bill passed without its sponsors citing a single instance of the controversial concepts outlined in it being taught in Oklahoma. 

Now, Republican-controlled states like Florida and Texas are broadening the culture wars to DEI by charging that it does the opposite of what it purports to do, and breeds ideological conformity instead. The shift comes as the Supreme Court is expected to decide two cases later this year that challenge whether universities may use affirmative action, or consider a student’s race alongside other factors, when making admissions decisions. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion are policies and programs intended to ensure fair treatment and broad representation across race, gender, sexual orientation and more, especially among those who’ve been historically underrepresented. 

“The mission of a public university is to prepare students for the diverse society they will live in,” said Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “The president of our university has said that’s a defining goal of our university.”

“So-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies at public universities operate as divisive ideological commissariats, promulgating and enforcing Critical Race Theory and related political orthodoxies as official campus policy,” according to model legislation co-authored by Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank. Rufo is a conservative activist and chief architect of the anti-CRT movement. The piece goes on to cite a report from the Heritage Foundation that claims that at universities in the Power Five athletic conferences “students feel less welcome, not more welcome, at universities with larger DEI staff.”

The model legislation provides an ideological justification for deconstructing the infrastructure that supports critical race theory. In a tweet last month, Rufo put the tactical expansion of the battle to dominate ideas and values simply: “Conservatives must move the fight from ideology to bureaucracy. We’ve won the debate against CRT; now it’s time to dismantle DEI.”

Rufo, reached through the Manhattan Institute, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Power Five conferences are the largest revenue-raising athletic conferences in college sports, especially football. The Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State University cowboys are members of the Big 12, and college football is king in Oklahoma. 

According to statistics compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the average university in the Power Five has 45 staff members devoted to DEI. The University of Oklahoma is below average with 35 personnel, but near the top among the Big 12 schools after Iowa State (47) and University of Texas at Austin (45). With 26 DEI personnel, Oklahoma State University is well below average.

“Rather than being an effective tool for welcoming students from different backgrounds, DEI personnel may be better understood as a signal of adherence to ideological, political, and activist goals,” the Heritage Foundation report claims. The authors also suggest that the fallout makes the college atmosphere unwelcoming to other students — not unlike the critical race theory bill in Oklahoma and other states that prohibited teaching concepts that make white children feel uncomfortable.

Following widespread calls for racial justice in 2020, Oklahoma football players actively participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. The entire football program, dressed in black and wearing masks, marched in solidarity and in recognition of the team’s diversity after a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake was shot several times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Football players also protested in 2019 when video surfaced of students wearing blackface.

Public universities in the South are also red states disproportionately represented in Power Five schools. Their football teams are disproportionately Black, far more diverse than their state’s population or campus enrollment  —  and help raise revenue that benefits universities overall.

The University of Oklahoma football program is consistently among the top 10 in the nation in raising money to the tune of $177 million in revenue in fiscal year 2022. Sooner football receives very little, if any, financial support from the institution or student fees. Among the 65 Power Five conference schools, Oklahoma State sits around the middle.

Both universities tout their DEI work as critical to achieving institutional goals and core to their missions. Prior to Stitt’s State of the State Address, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education reported that its spending on DEI this fiscal year amounted to less than 1% of all higher education spending or state expenditures on higher education, according to the Tulsa World.

In challenging the state’s universities to improve their educational quality, Stitt noted the importance of meeting the engineering needs of the state’s growing aerospace industry. American Airlines and Amazon are among the corporations he’s welcomed in Oklahoma. American Airlines is under pressure by conservative groups to pay less attention to DEI. And  Amazon has seen the highest loss of DEI professionals among big companies since mid-2022, according to a February report from Revelio Labs.

DEI roles in the U.S. are mostly occupied by white people. And across the country, recent surveys show, organizations are cutting those jobs back. The Revelio Labs report said a higher share of DEI professionals were leaving their jobs in recent months — voluntarily or not — than were non-DEI workers. 

“Companies with DEI teams tend to have more diverse new hires, and higher employee satisfaction,” according to the report.

It was “tragic” for Stitt to pit career services against DEI, said Hill, the African and African American Studies professor at the University of Oklahoma. Public universities want students to land jobs and to treat people with respect and equity.

“Both of them are important,” Hill said. “Let’s not pit them against each other as if career services is the equivalent of teaching students what it means to live in a diverse and inclusive society.”

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April Simpson joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2020 as a senior reporter covering racial...