A recent report from the State Auditor Shad White’s office found that Mississippi’s eight public universities spent at least $23 million on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives since July 2019. Just under half was state funding, the report states, with the remainder coming from federal or private grants. 

Much of the spending in the report covers what appears to be traditional DEI initiatives, like funding for diversity offices, affinity-based student groups and events celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month. DEI is generally understood to refer to programs that promote the “fair treatment” of historically marginalized people.

But it also includes programs that may not be typically seen as DEI, like legally-mandated scholarships for non-Black students attending historically Black colleges and universities, a lecture at Mississippi University for Women by the artist collective Guerilla Girls and an event at Alcorn State University called “pet-a-puppy.” 

That’s because each institution was operating off it’s own definition of diversity, not DEI. The auditor’s office did not define DEI in its report. A spokesperson told Mississippi Today it was up to the Institutions of Higher Learning and each university, not the auditor, to define DEI. 

But IHL has not approved a definition of DEI for the system or for any of the universities, a spokesperson confirmed. Instead, the agency has approved institution-specific definitions of “diversity,” or groups traditionally under-represented at each campus, for the purpose of setting diversity goals.  

So that’s the definition the auditor’s office directed IHL and each university to use, emails obtained by Mississippi Today show. 

At the state’s three historically Black colleges and universities, that means non-Black students. Programs aimed at recruiting and retaining non-Black students were included in the auditor’s report and accounted for roughly $2.3 million, or 10%, of the total budgeted dollars. 

It’s also unclear if the report is comprehensive. Jackson State University’s spending is blank for two of the four fiscal years the auditor requested; a spokesperson told Mississippi Today that was because the university did not have state-funded programs to report for those years. One fiscal year from Mississippi State University includes an accounting error that shows it spent $35,000 less than it actually did. 

The university wrote in an email to Mississippi Today that it told the auditor’s office to update the error on June 1 after the office reached out, but that hasn’t happened yet. 

Fletcher Freeman, the auditor’s spokesperson, wrote in an email the office did not audit the spreadsheets the universities submitted. 

“If a university said they spent DEI money on a program and it was listed in their survey it was included,” Freeman wrote. “We did not ‘choose’ to include one expenditure over another. If it was included in the universities DEI expenditures it was attached to the report.” 

White’s report comes as DEI on college campuses has come under fire by Republican governors. Texas is one of at least a dozen states that is poised to ban diversity-in-hiring programs at state universities. 

In a video, White said he directed his office to run this report because Mississippi taxpayers deserve to know what universities are spending on DEI. (The report, modeled off a similar review by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, did not include DEI spending at the state’s 15 community colleges.) 

“I have real concerns about taxpayer dollars being spent on DEI initiatives, particularly whether taxpayer dollars are being spent to teach ideas that tear us apart rather than bring us together,” he said

After the report published last week, the Institutions of Higher Learning, which worked with the auditor’s office to create the report’s spreadsheet, countered with a statement that said DEI spending is a workforce investment and represents less than 1% of the system’s state appropriations. 

“Our public universities have diverse student bodies and an obligation to support them,” the press release said. 

IHL had suggested the auditor’s office ask the universities to report DEI spending as a percentage of university expenditures and state appropriations, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. But the auditor did not go with that suggestion. 

The auditor’s office also asked IHL to provide criteria showing how diversity outcomes factor into performance reviews for the university presidents, according to that same batch of emails. That wasn’t included in the report, though the auditor’s office may be working on an additional report due out in October, according to the emails. Freeman said he was not aware of that. 

So how do Mississippi’s universities support their diverse student bodies? 

At Delta State University, that looks like $30 spent on an event called “United in Green,” which was held to “engage students, faculty and staff in non-partisan conversations about (the) 2020 election elections.” The university also spent $1,014.66 in 2023 on a civil rights field trip to Jackson. 

At Mississippi State University, about $18,970 in state funds in 2020 were spent on a leadership conference for high school juniors who identify as underrepresented. In the spreadsheet, MSU noted that “students participating have shown a greater likelihood to enroll at Mississippi State, as well as be retained.” 

Almost every school reported spending DEI funds on programming or activities for international students.

Some of the spending even aligns with programs the state auditor has endorsed — which White did not mention in his video. Many of the universities reported spending DEI funds on events for student veterans, like approximately $33,599 in state funding that the University of Mississippi spent in 2020 on staff who support those students. 

The auditor has recommended JROTC programs as a way to reduce “fatherlessness.” 

But a significant slice of the spending that was reported covered programs that seem to have very little to do with the goals of DEI. 

In 2021, Alcorn State reported spending $2,500 on a Department of Fine Arts Strings Workshop and Master Class, $40,000 on “new student orientation” and $1,337 on programs to support student health, such as “National Go Red Day for Heart Health.” That same year, the oldest historically Black university in Mississippi also reported $150,000 of spending on $10,000 scholarships for non-Black students. 

Mississippi Valley State University also counted funds it was legally mandated to try to spend as part of the Ayers settlement on recruiting and scholarships for non-Black students as DEI funds.

One of just two DEI programs that Jackson State reported was about $6,972 in 2022 and 2023 to prevent chronic kidney disease in “equitable populations” across Mississippi. 

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

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