ANALYSIS: Moves to dismantle DEI programs may actually be ploys to further embed the agenda

But they disagree about whether DEI work will be decentralized, or if it will continue at all.

Acadmeics and DEI activists think that U of Arkansas is dismantling its DEI division to protect it from a political crackdown.

The University of Arkansas may have had ulterior motives in dismantling its DEI division.

Earlier this month, Campus Reform reported that the University of Arkansas was dismantling its DEI division, and reallocating its people and resources to other departments. Social media was flooded with declarations of victory from conservatives and complaints from leftists. But a report from Inside Higher Education Wednesday revealed that the university is simply decentralizing the DEI mission and spreading it across departments.

“The chancellor has been very clear about doing this for months, reframing the debate around diversity, equity and inclusion—because that’s what it has become, a debate—as one about student success,” Arkansas Faculty Senate chairman Stephen Caldwell told Inside Higher Ed.. “This topic is so charged that when you say, ‘We’re dissolving DEI,’ half the people hear, ‘The University of Arkansas hates Black people’ and the other half say, ‘What are you doing? This is a travesty!’ Neither of those two sides realize what’s actually happening, which is that all of the people on our campus doing that type of work are going to stay and will continue doing that type of work, just reporting to different people.”

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Caldwell added that he wasn’t sure what motivated the final decision to dismantle the division, but the nationwide crackdown on DEI was a factor in his conversations with Chancellor Charles Robinson. He also noted that he agreed with the principle of Robinson’s decision, that decentralizing DEI work would lead to better outcomes.

Ideally, Caldwell expected that Arkansas’s move would set the standard for other schools to follow.

“I think we’re starting to approach a post-DEI environment, where now it’s all of our responsibility on campus. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

But Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations Mark Rushing seemed to indicate that the scattered employees would not have the same responsibilities they had under the DEI division. He told Inside Higher Ed that their new responsibilities would “now support all students and employees.” Nor would they have their performance measured by DEI metrics, but they would be fully incorporated into their respective offices– indicating that DEI would become secondary, or even voluntary.

DEI activists also disagreed on what the University’s move meant. One DEI researcher told Inside Higher Ed that cutting back on centralized DEI administrations could not only improve outcomes, but shield them. But another activist said that eliminating centralized DEI authority could make oversight more difficult. But both seemed to agree that the move was intended to protect the university from a political crackdown.  

A spokesman for the University of Arkansas clarified the decision in a statement to Campus Reform. “The Division/Office of DEI will no longer exist,” the statement read. “All employees in [the DEI] office will have the opportunity to be reassigned out of DEI into new roles and positions – different than their current roles/duties in the DEI office – that will now support all students and employees in the areas of access, recruitment, retention and success. We believe that this is the best way to fulfill the university’s land-grant mission of access and opportunity for all. These changes will be effective Aug. 1, 2023.”

[RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: UCincinnati President encourages students to contact legislators to protect mandated DEI courses]

Other universities lend credence to the idea that Arkansas could be decentralizing DEI. As previously reported by Campus Reform, the University of Washington requires all departments to submit regular assessments through a rubric designed to measure a department’s “transforming” and “progress toward DEI goals and develop action plans to institutionalize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices and procedures.” Each department must occasionally evaluate its work to make DEI a priority via an assessment, which rates a department’s efforts on a scale of either 0-20 or 0-25.

Campus Reform reached out to Caldwell, the University of Arkansas University Relations department, and the Chancellor’s office for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.