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UW students fight against bill prohibiting DEI programs

Hannah Shields with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — There is a movement across the country to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs in state departments and agencies, and Wyoming could soon be one of them.
Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, is the sponsor of Senate File 130, “The equality state not equity state act,” a bill that prohibits diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in all governmental entities in Wyoming. In his introduction of the non-budget bill Feb. 16, Biteman said this legislation was a concern brought to him by his constituents.
After passing its introduction vote 22-9, the bill was assigned for further discussion in the Senate Revenue Committee, of which Biteman is chairman.
“All men are created equal. We’re based on equal rights, not equal outcomes,” Biteman said on Tuesday, during the committee discussion.
University of Wyoming spokesperson Mike Smith said he agreed with Biteman’s focus on equality, and felt the university could continue its DEI efforts within the confines of the bill.
“We’re the University of Wyoming. Hopefully, we do things the Wyoming way, and how we’re implementing programs and the focus of those programs is hopefully different ... than it is in other places,” he said. “I think it is, and I’m not saying there aren’t things that you might find that you wished we weren’t doing ... but it is, I think, focused on helping all students succeed.”
Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees Executive Director Erin Taylor read a statement to committee members on behalf of Northwest College President Lisa Watson.
Taylor read in the statement that Wyoming community colleges are open access and do not offer any DEI academic programs.
“We have no preferential student or employment practices,” Taylor read from the statement.
Three UW students, however, spoke against the bill. They shared their “heartfelt concerns” about the possibility of seeing the closure of the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) if the bill passes and becomes law.
“Let us not overlook the tangible and indispensable services that this office provides to our students and community at large,” said Jean-Luc Wilson, a UW sophomore.
The ODEI plays a pivotal role in supporting religious freedoms and promoting civil discourse, he said, ensuring accessibility for those with physical disabilities, and offering student employment and research opportunities.
“These are not merely checkboxes on a bureaucratic form. They are the lifelines that connect our university to the fabric of Wyoming,” Wilson said, adding that UW’s Gay-Straight Alliance and Latino Leadership programs could be severely impacted by this legislation.
Sen. Tim French, R-Powell, asked Wilson to comment on “the hot topic issue” of violation against Jewish Americans.
“Do you support the Jewish students at the college through DEI equally as maybe you support the Palestinian cause?” French asked.
Wilson said he could not comment on the ODEI’s behalf, but said this office does not exclude any single group, but supports every student equally, regardless of affiliation.
Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, said nowhere in the bill does it change whether or not the university can have a DEI office or DEI academic programs.
“I think (the bill) says everybody should be treated even, and nobody’s special,” McKeown said.
Wilson disagreed with the senator’s statement, and he pointed to a section in the bill that specifically prohibits governmental agencies from participating in DEI programs and policies. McKeown said the key word is “differential or preferential treatment” in the paragraph.
“Have you noticed those words? Because they’re really the crux of this bill,” McKeown said.
Wilson said those words, in combination with a following section that classified individuals based on “race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation,” limited the ODEI on policies it can pursue.
The ODEI would be unable to advocate for or promote activities associated with sexual or religious diversity, Wilson said. Maya Wooster, a UW freshman, added that passing this bill might send a message to the rest of the country that Wyoming does not support these minority communities.
French, in a pushback statement, said he didn’t personally care how a person identified in the LGBTQ+ community. What the situation boiled down to, he said, is how the majority rules.

“I know it’s sometimes hard to hear,” French said. “But the majority of the people in Wyoming don’t like this.”
Wooster acknowledged French’s point of a majority- rules situation, but added it is “imperative” that Wyoming makes sure minorities feel they have a place in the state.
“It’s incredibly important to make sure the minority is represented,” Wooster said. “Even if, to some extent, the majority dislikes that. It’s always going to feel worse to the majority when the minority gains more inclusion.”
French told the students they should “take a deep breath” and realize it’s not as bad as they think it might be. UW student Sophia Gomelsky told committee members they needed to take students’ voices seriously and consider the impacts this bill could have, especially on those who are in the minority.
“Frankly, this bill represents an overreach of government authority,” Gomelsky said. “It sets a dangerous precedent by allowing the state government to dictate what issues and values are permissible within our public institutions.”
Biteman responded to the students’ testimony, saying DEI programs “walk the line of being unconstitutional.”
“When you start promoting one group of people at the expense of another, that’s discrimination on its face,” Biteman said. “If you’re going to tear somebody else down to pull yourself up, you’re discriminating against that group.”
Sen. Bob Ide, R-Casper, added that “Wyoming is way ahead of the rest of the world.” The bill prevents the state from going down a slippery slope of sanctioning one particular group over another, he said.
Gomelsky said lawmakers failed to consult UW students in the creation of this bill. None of the students disagreed with the senators about the state of equality in Wyoming, but their request was to not outlaw activities of the ODEI that help minority students feel included.
Gomelsky said both of her parents were in the USSR and told her stories of what it was like to be discriminated against and not be able to voice their opinions during their time in Russia.
“(The ODEI) doesn’t take away anybody’s rights, but protects (them),” Gomelsky said.
Wyoming Equality Director Sara Burlingame, who spoke against the bill, said an issue in the bill’s language was combining the ideas of “differential” and “preferential.”
“I think we’ve found agreement that ‘preferential’ is not appropriate and is not pursued by the university or the colleges in Wyoming,” Burlingame said, who suggested striking the word “differential” from the bill. “‘Differential’ really does get us into some trouble.”
The word “differential” created unintended consequences, she said. Burlingame also suggested lawmakers lay the bill back and visit with the students at UW, to give them a voice in legislation that would ultimately impact them.
“Let’s hear (students’) input on what they think diversity and equity should look like,” Burlingame said.
Biteman said the Legislature was never involved when the university decided to launch the ODEI, which was done in 2017, adding this was the Legislature’s response that was prompted by its constituents.
“It’s a major issue,” Biteman said. “We have some major donors that are very concerned about the direction things are going. There’s two sides to every story.”
Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, was the sole vote against advancing the bill to the Senate floor. He said the bill’s language is confusing, and he didn’t think it accomplished what Biteman was trying to do.
“The way I read it, I think it’s going to create some legal issues,” Pappas said. “I know your intent; I just don’t think this bill does it.”
This story was published on February 23, 2024. 

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