Dive Brief:

  • At least three colleges have paused diversity efforts because of the White House’s executive order barring training it regards as “divisive” in federally supported programs.

  • The directive, released in September, forbids federal grantees from teaching certain ideologies, such as that the country is inherently racist or sexist.  

  • The institutional prohibitions suggest that postsecondary leaders’ fears the order would weaken inclusivity initiatives and campus free speech were well-founded.

Dive Insight:

President Donald Trump earned immediate backlash from campus officials and higher education pundits after he issued the order, which applies to public and private schools.

They blasted the edict for its ambiguity and its potential to halt diversity programs, which have long had a place in the postsecondary world. Many colleges said they would evaluate their programs in light of the order but stressed they would hold firm to diversity principles. 

Only recently have some campuses started suspending activities.

The University of Iowa is recommending a two-week pause on such efforts — including employee harassment and discrimination training and workshops that describe race or sex sterotyping. Liz Tovar, interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, said in a statement the institution was worried about penalties the order might impose but stressed that “diversity, equity, and inclusion remain as core values.”

Similarly, Texas State University President Denise Trauth told faculty and staff members recently the school would temporarily cease employee diversity training so as not to jeopardize students’ federal financial aid and instructor grants. And John A. Logan College, in Illinois, canceled diversity-related activities, including a talk planned in conjunction with National Hispanic Heritage Month, according to media reports.

Initially, Trump restricted such training only for federal employees. At the time, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education encouraged institutions to maintain their equity standards.

The association’s president, Paulette Granberry Russell, said “it’s understandable” colleges would be cautious given the potential consequences. However, she urged them “not to back away from their commitment to creating welcoming, supportive, inclusive campuses,” which she said encompasses educational initiatives. 

Colleges now must interpret the order’s “vague,” terms, Granberry Russell said. It references a ban on “race or sex stereotyping,” for instance, though she argued it does not concretly define that idea. She said she expects further guidance from the executive branch. 

The order’s scope has come under fire. Although it makes an exception for academic debate of the targeted concepts, colleges believe the directive would still apply to them.

Granberry Russell said it’s difficult to predict whether more institutions will hold back on training.

“If inequities persist, how do we correct them, if we can’t talk about them?” she said.

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