Why uncertainty is baked into bans on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And, how one university is bracing for the NCAA athlete compensation settlement.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

In our conversations with reporters about bans on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, there’s one theme that keeps coming up: ambiguity. 

It also came up multiple times in comment letters sent to the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors in advance of their May 23 vote to scrap its DEI policy. (Here’s what they adopted in its place.)

Several UNC Asheville staff members called the ban’s language “poorly constructed and unclear, potentially leading to misinterpretation and fear,” according to the letters, which we and our partner WUNC obtained with a public-records request. And Jeremy C. Young, a program director at PEN America — a group that defends free speech and supports writers — said adopting language “this broad and general,” without providing guidance for campuses to interpret the policy, will create a “wide chilling effect” on the system. 

Lee Roberts, interim chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told WUNC this week that the university hasn’t begun implementing the policy, and is awaiting guidance from the system. “We know people are anxious but I’m afraid we don’t have enough guidance to really make decisions now,” he said on WUNC’s Due South. 

So far, the system has said its vote doesn’t mean identity-based centers on campus have to be eliminated. But we’ve seen this show before. Following Texas’s DEI ban, leaders from the seven university systems told lawmakers that they have closed multicultural offices and fired or reassigned DEI staff, Sneha Dey at our partner The Texas Tribune reported.

And we’ve seen what happens when campus leaders respond to DEI policies they find unclear. When universities are forced to interpret policy themselves, they often act more conservatively. 

I talked with Antonio L. Ingram II, assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, more about this. He said that it’s important to remember the language in many of the bans around the country stems from a Trump-era executive order that blocked federal funding for the promotion of “divisive concepts” based on race and sex. (Though it’s worth noting that UNC’s ban doesn’t have bearing on classroom content, unlike “divisive concept” bans in Alabama and Florida, Inside Higher Ed reported this week.) 

Fourteen anti-DEI measures around the country have become law and lawmakers have introduced 85 measures in state houses since 2023, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s tracker.

“I think the ambiguity that we’re now seeing across the country in many of these legislative acts reflects this original origin,” Ingram told me. It was “always meant to be an ambiguous enterprise to really curtail discussions that certain individuals viewed to be inappropriate.” 

Students and others told Kate McGee, also one of our reporters at The Texas Tribune, earlier this year that they feel universities are overcorrecting. The University of Texas at Austin ended its Monarch Program, which offered support and scholarships to students from undocumented families. Dozens of employees have lost their jobs. And the state’s public universities cut funding for cultural graduation ceremonies.

The end of the Monarch Program in Texas is particularly concerning, Ingram said, because the state’s ban doesn’t include immigration status. 

“We now see that in a place like Texas, there becomes almost a carte blanche to really attack communities that are politically unsavory.” 

Antonio L. Ingram II, assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund

We’ll be covering what comes next in Texas, where lawmakers are expected to introduce additional measures to enforce the ban. And, we’re looking for ways to explain the stakes of the UNC system change.

Have ideas or questions we should be asking? Email me: colleen@opencampusmedia.org.

The power of higher-ed beat reporting

Kate McGee at our partner The Texas Tribune was named one of the top beat reporters in the country last week at the Education Writers Association annual conference. Two other of our reporters, Charlotte West, who writes about higher ed in prisons, and Molly Minta, of our partner Mississippi Todaywere finalists for the honor. 

We’re putting reporters on the higher ed beat around America, so we’re honored to see their work recognized in this way. Kate is part of our new initiative, Open Campus Texas, which will deepen reporting across the state. Sign up for updates here

We’re a nonprofit newsroom that relies on your support.

If this type of reporting matters to you, donate to Open Campus today.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

From California: Many adult Californians are missing out on financial aid, reports Adam Echelman at our partner CalMatters. There’s a proposal to fix the state’s Ability to Benefit provision, which opens up aid dollars to people without high school diplomas. But, the federal government would need to OK it by July 1. 

From Cleveland: Amy Morona at our partner Signal Cleveland talked to the city’s summer interns about their plans after college, and what brought them to Cleveland. 

From Colorado: Jason Gonzales, our reporter at Chalkbeat Colorado, reports that lawmakers are reassessing the state’s numerous free-college programs. And, he talked to counselors who worry summer melt — students who make an enrollment deposit but don’t end up going to college — will be worse this year. 

From Fort Worth: Tarleton State is expanding into Fort Worth this fall, when it will welcome its first freshman class. Shomial Ahmad, our newest reporter at The Fort Worth Report, spoke with one of its top administrators. 

From Pittsburgh: A pending NCAA settlement would force universities in the Power 5 conferences to spend up to $20 million a year on athlete compensation. That’s going to be a serious challenge for schools like the University of Pittsburgh, whose athletic department broke even the last five years, Emma Folts writes at PublicSource. 

“They can’t afford to charge full tuition to everybody. Students are sensitive to being asked to pay student fees that will subsidize the athletics department. Benefits and salaries are going up; the cost of real estate is going up. So, there’s really no logical place to pull this from.”

Karen Weaver, former NCAA Division I head coach and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania

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