DEI audit of state universities shows $9M in state funds spent widely

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TOPEKA — An audit instigated because of Republican suspicion over state public universities’ equity programs found the programs used $9 million in state dollars during the 2022-2023 school year. 

On Wednesday, Heidi Zimmerman, principal auditor with the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, delivered the results of an audit looking at university expenditures on diversity, equity and inclusion programs to a bipartisan committee of lawmakers.

Zimmerman cautioned lawmakers that the lack of an overarching DEI definition, along with self-reported data from the universities, could skew results.

“The accuracy of this information is dependent on whether or not the universities reported completely and accurately to us,” Zimmerman said. “Additionally, we cannot ensure complete consistency across the universities because they do not all think of DEI in exactly the same way.”

Rep. Steven Howe, a Salina Republican who has urged legislation restricting DEI practices, requested the audit. Howe has claimed DEI initiatives could lead to “lopsided” universities, with a “certain ideology” prioritized.

DEI is commonly understood as a broad organizational framework that seeks to give voices to historically underrepresented groups, addressing topics such as race, gender and sexual identity.

While the majority of education officials support the practice at all levels of learning, Republicans at a state and national level have opposed it, following a trend of disapproving of affirmative action and critical race theory.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said state universities should make all students “valuable.”

“I would challenge our universities to reach out to all students and ensure that they all feel equally valuable, and that we’re not just looking at one particular group but we’re looking at all students because all students are vulnerable at any given time,” Williams said.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Kansas’ six state universities spent an estimated $9 million in state funding for DEI-related training, staffing and other services. However, because there’s no state law or Board of Regents definition of what should be considered DEI, universities included a broad range of activities under the umbrella.

For the time frame, the six universities reported spending a total of about $45 million on DEI-related activities, including 510 full-time equivalent DEI-related positions, and costs for 202 DEI-related trainings on topics such as sexual harassment, harassment, anti-bias and disability inclusion. Other costs included scholarships and workshops.

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Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, put forward his own understanding of DEI as an organic outcropping of cultural change.

“I was thinking about the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Probst said. “At that point, if a college then incorporates any accessibility options into its campus, that would be under this broad definition, part of DEI. We may not have labeled it such in the ’80s, but it would have been an organic outreach of that.”

Zimmerman said some of the services included support groups for students to meet others of similar backgrounds, food pantries, outreach programs and tutoring, as well as services for veterans and first-generation college students.

“Some universities told us that DEI activities are activities that improve access to higher education for all students,” Zimmerman said. “Others told us DEI activities create a university culture that values differences and belonging. … They reported a wide variety of services.”

Zimmerman put the total reported DEI spending of $45 million at about 2% of the universities’ total expenditures in the 2023 school year.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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