Students at HBCUs in states where Republicans have attacked campus diversity programs fear the entirety of their colleges’ rich history, traditions, and social mobility is in jeopardy.
HBCUs are safe spaces for African American students to indulge in organizations and a social setting catering to them. These days, though, students and faculty are pleading for protection as public institutions across the country adjust to recent legislation that could imperil some aspects of campuses that they love.
The term “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI — and the offices on college campuses that oversee it — have drawn ire from conservative lawmakers following in the footsteps of lawmakers in Florida and Texas. More than 30 states have sought to regulate DEI initiatives, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
DEI offices generally exist to foster inclusivity and diversity among faculty and students, though Republican lawmakers say these practices push a liberal ideology and are attempting to indoctrinate people.
Earlier this year, Florida became the first state to ban these efforts when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill barring public colleges and universities from spending money on DEI efforts, which he said are discriminatory. “… DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination,” DeSantis said at the time.
Florida has four HBCUs, though only one is public. At Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, student Trenece Robertson is concerned about how the legislation will impact her school.
“I think people should be very concerned considering that prior to the bill being passed, there was a section where they were intending on banning or getting rid of certain degree programs,” Robertson said. “I am worried about FAMU because in a sense, as an HBCU we are basically a DEI program, as it is rich in Black culture and history.”
William Hudson Jr., the university’s vice president of student affairs, said the bill did not impact students directly as much as others may have thought.
“It has not impacted our students as the student activities office continues to manage programming,” he wrote in an email. “The students pay activities and service fees and are provided a budget to support student organizations that develop programming in collaboration with student activities.”
Maia Appleby is publisher & editor of Equity & Access, a journal housed within the American Consortium for Equity in Education. To Appleby, this bill is a threat to Florida’s future.
Appleby, who is based in West Palm Beach, said dealing with the histories and contexts of different cultures is a part of helping students enter and thrive in an ever-changing world.
“Schools should prioritize equity and access because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do. We’re literally preparing students for a world we can’t imagine. Most of today’s students, from kindergarten all the way through college, will one day be doing jobs that don’t exist right now,” she said. “If we intend to remain a ‘superpower’ nation, we need 100% of our students to have all the tools they’ll need to succeed in the global workplace of the future.
“College campuses are in many ways microcosms of society and diversity of thought,” he wrote in an email. “It prepares students for a global economy.
Texas followed suit a few months later. Starting Jan. 1, 2024, DEI offices and programs at public institutions will cease to exist because the Legislature passed a bill this year which will ban DEI offices, programs and training.
In Ohio, Senate Bill 83 is working its way through the legislative process. If it’s signed into law, it will bar DEI training requirements at public universities. It would also prevent them from taking stances on a wide range of topics the legislation deems “controversial,” such as abortion, politics and DEI programs.
At Central State University, Ohio’s only public historically Black college, students are discussing the bill on social media, according to student Raven Golliday.
“This is a direct attack on knowledge and what we are able to do with it,” she said.“This is trying to put specific guidelines or limitations on what we can say and what can be taught.”
An Ohio native, Golliday said she is “saddened to hear that something like this could possibly rob us of the education, programs, and the different policies that we need at all universities to be fully informed.”
For Golliday, her time at Central State University has provided an educational experience distinct from what she would have received at a predominantly white institution.
“I can definitely say attending my HBCU has taught me a lot, not only about my academics but also about lessons that I feel like I wouldn’t have learned at a PWI,” she said. Other institutions often teach “a sugar-coated version or a very politically correct version that is robbing students of the opportunity to learn the truth in all aspects.”
The bill is pending, awaiting the governor’s signature before becoming law.
DEI activity has also been the target of action in North Carolina. The University of North Carolina system banned “compelled speech” in March, a move responding to a North Carolina State University application question asking applicants to affirm their commitment to building an inclusive community.
Del Ruff began his job as chief diversity officer at North Carolina A&T in the summer of 2021.
Ruff warned that Ohio’s effort, and others like it, will make it harder for HBCUs in those states to hire faculty. The bill would make it impossible to have conversations “about the students on campus who are 80-90% Black, or being able to interview someone about how they will teach those students,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s good to ask what type of background you have with Black students from rural areas, or Black students from urban areas,” Ruff said.
There is one potential positive outcome of the pending Ohio legislation, Ruff said. The bill may increase student interest in attending HBCUs for their diverse and inclusive academic environment, which may be threatened at other institutions. This could create a logistical dilemma for institutions that are not prepared for an increase in enrollment.
“More Black students will come to HBCUs. That’s a great problem to have, but will we have the infrastructure to support those students if more students go to HBCUs?” Ruff said.
Victoria Alexander, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, dedicated her dissertation to the experiences of black students at PWIs. She found that although predominantly white institutions encourage the ideology behind DEI, there is still work to be done.
“Many Black college students at PWIs report feeling that their institution has talked a big game about their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but that the results are yet to be seen for Black students,” Alexander said.
Examples of this include stagnating Black student demographics, low numbers of Black tenured faculty members, and more, she said.
If there is going to be a push against future anti-DEI bills, it will have to come from HBCUs and their PWI counterparts alike, said Brenda Brent-Williams, an alumnus of Southern University, and former associate of students that were a part of the university’s Students United advocacy group.
“If students want to maintain this culture, we have to fight for it. They will have to solicit support from students at the PWIs and elsewhere, they have to vote and fight through the ballot,” she said.