The Mississippi Office of the State Auditor has asked public universities in the state to detail spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, the latest attempt by officials to mimic Republican efforts across the country that take aim at “woke” policies. 

The request, obtained by Mississippi Today, was sent via email last week to public universities by Laura Gray, an employee in the office’s Government Accountability Division. Gray wrote that White’s office “is conducting a performance review of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs/ activities administered by Mississippi’s public universities.” 

In higher education, the phrase “diversity, equity and inclusion” refers to a range of policies and programs that foster enrollment and retention of historically marginalized groups. 

Gray’s email instructed universities to fill out an attached spreadsheet, send it back to her and copy Casey Prestwood, an associate commissioner at the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), by April 20. 

IHL is the governing board for Mississippi’s eight public universities. Kim Gallaspy, IHL’s interim communications director, said IHL’s role is to provide the auditor’s office, which initiated the review, with information.  

Fletcher Freeman, a spokesperson for the auditor’s office, told Mississippi Today that the request was inspired by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s review of diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public universities in Florida earlier this year. 

“After seeing Florida’s review of DEI spending, we have decided to use the same model to review DEI spending at universities in Mississippi,” Freeman wrote in an email. 

Mississippi Today obtained a copy of the request sent to Delta State University on April 6. The attached spreadsheet asks for spending from fiscal year 2020 to present. The columns ask for a “brief description” of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, the total funding received from all sources, the number of full-time-equivalent employees and their titles, and how much in state funds was expended. 

It’s not evident from the request how White’s office plans to use this information, but the auditorwho is facing reelection this year, has become known for reports on topics like out-of-classroom spending or the economic impact of “fatherlessness.” White has denied these reports are politically motivated, though his office’s findings are often accompanied by conservative policy solutions, such as JROTC programs to combat “the dissolution of families.” 

White’s latest aim at diversity, equity and inclusion comes just a few months after similar efforts from Republican officials in other states. In January, DeSantis asked public universities in Florida to account for spending on diversity, equity and inclusion as part of his pledge to “eliminate all DEI and CRT bureaucracies” in the state, POLITICO reported. The State University System of Florida — which is similar to IHL — has supported DeSantis’s efforts. 

A few weeks later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went a step further, issuing a memo to state agencies and public university officials that diversity, equity and inclusion policies in hiring violate state and federal employment laws. 

In Mississippi, lawmakers have yet to touch diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, so far only nominally banning the teaching of critical race theory in public K-12 schools and universities. 

Dan Durkin, a professor at University of Mississippi and the president of the United Faculty Senate Association of Mississippi, said the request caught him off guard but that he thinks the auditor should find diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are money well-spent because it improves recruitment and retention. 

“In Mississippi, it’s particularly important, and with our university’s history, I think that makes it even more important in our mission to reach out to African American students,” Durkin said. “We want to bring students here, but we want to make sure that they feel at home while they’re here and that they feel supported.” 

Durkin added that he had recently spoken to Chancellor Glenn Boyce about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and that Boyce was supportive of the initiatives. 

Universities across the state post on their websites statements about diversity, equity and inclusion. IHL has for years now given out an annual “diversity” award to faculty, staff and even House Speaker Philip Gunn in 2021 for his efforts to change the Mississippi state flag. 

The IHL Board of Trustees, a politically appointed body, recently asked applicants during the Delta State presidential search to submit a “written philosophy” of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.