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Diversity, tuition and AI: Lawmakers look to legislate higher education

Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, asks a question about how Kentucky can increase workforce numbers during Thursday’s Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment.
LRC Public Information
Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, asks a question about how Kentucky can increase workforce numbers during Thursday’s Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment.

Higher education is a hot topic this session with lawmakers attempting to address several issues including DEI statements and tuition costs. Here are a few bills to keep an eye on in the coming months.

Kentucky lawmakers are delivering on promises for a big year in higher education introducing several bills affecting colleges and universities.

One Republican-backed measure would restrict public universities in how they implement Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statements and training by banning the use of “divisive concepts” such as making a person feel “discomfort” or “guilt” on account of their race or sex.

Another piece of legislation that has previously received some bipartisan support would limit tuition increases and implement freezes for current students.

In an attempt to fill a gap in federal guidance, Democratic leaders have filed legislation that would require universities to create policies around artificial intelligence.

Here are a few of the bills Louisville Public Media is watching as the session progresses:

Restrictions on DEI statements & trainings

Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Wilson from Bowling Green, lays out 16 “divisive concepts” that public higher education institutions would not be allowed to use in mandatory trainings or in so-called “diversity statements,” which some universities require for hiring and promotion.

Those “divisive concepts” include (in part):

  • No person is inherently “privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive” by virtue of their race or sex
  • No person bears responsibility for the actions of past members of the same race or sex
  • No person should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish” because of their race or sex
  • Ideas that “promotes division between, or resentment of" someone of a particular race, class, religious, nonviolent political ideology or class
  • Ideas that include “race or sex scapegoating”

Colleges sometimes request diversity statements as part of applications for faculty jobs. Candidates might be asked to explain how they have contributed to DEI work in their academic careers.
Wilson said he hopes his bill will ensure intellectual freedom among both faculty and students, and keep universities from using DEI statements and training as a “litmus test” for whether a student graduates or a faculty member gets hired.

“Our universities were really laboratories, the way they were originally set up for free speech and debate,” Wilson said. “Now you can't really do that. Because if you say something that they disagree with, then they start calling you names and saying you're racist.”

“I think that this is helping restore some of that,” Wilson said.

It is unclear how many — or if any — public Kentucky universities currently require such statements. University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said no position at the university requires such a statement.

Wilson said he intends to submit a substitute version of the bill when it appears in committee that would clarify the bill is not intended to infringe on the content of faculty’s instruction or research.

“This does not infringe on the academic freedom of the professors. They can still teach history, slavery, and all the things that have happened in history, and the discrimination that has taken place,” Wilson said.

The bill also allows students or faculty who feel their rights have been violated to sue the institution for anywhere between $1,000 and $100,000.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said he is concerned that lawmakers are using DEI as a “bogeyman to rile people up” ahead of the November elections.

“I believe that diversity is an asset, not a liability,” Beshear said. “I believe as a Commonwealth we should be saying we want to have a diverse population, diverse thought — that this is a welcoming place for everyone.”

Blanton said the University of Kentucky is still reviewing the legislation and is still considering how it will impact them. But, he said, the university is still committed to promoting belonging and all forms of diversity.

“We are committed as a university to be a place of belonging for everyone. We're also committed as a university to that fundamental academic value and principle of open inquiry and a free exchange of ideas,” Blanton said. “We think those ideas are compatible. In fact, they're essential to who we are.”

Lyndon Pryor, the executive director of the Louisville Urban League, said he thinks it is telling that these DEI bills are aimed in particular at educational institutions.

“Often a talking point of folks on that side is this idea that we should be free to think,” Pryor said. “Yet they are the ones proposing bills, more often than not, that are going to restrict and curtail that freedom of thought,” Pryor said. “We should always be deeply distrustful of anybody coming after education, public or otherwise.”

Advocates also fear this legislation could chill speech within university trainings and seminars due to the broad wording of some of the banned concepts.

The legislation also requires universities to conduct a campus climate survey that would gauge “respondents’ comfort level in speaking freely on campus, regardless of political affiliation or ideology.” Similar surveys have been mandated by other conservative legislatures, like Wisconsin. Wilson said he’s not sure yet if the legislature would act on those results.

Another bill that would restrict DEI practices — and much more broadly than Wilson’s — in K-12 settings was filed in the Senate this week, too.

Steps towards regulating AI

Another bill proposed this year would require universities to begin studying and reporting their use of artificial intelligence. The legislation, proposed by Lexington Democrat Reggie Thomas, requires the Council on Postsecondary Education to provide advice and recommendations to universities as they create their own policies around AI, especially generative AI like ChatGPT.

Thomas emphasized that the bill is a kind of stopgap while states await federal guidance on the powerful technology.

“I really think this is a federal issue. I think Congress should act and set some guidelines and parameters as to how AI is being used,” Thomas said. “But since Congress has yet to act, I just think that it's important for states to act until Congress decides or realizes that it must.”

Thomas said he doesn’t want to stop the use and innovation of AI, but he wants universities and colleges to think meaningfully about it, especially where it might hold back student learning.

Many universities have already begun to formulate policies around AI, especially in student work where Thomas said he is most concerned.

“We don't want AI to substitute for human creativity and human innovation,” Thomas said. “We don't want students to use AI to do their papers or projects or any other type of educational vehicle, rather than just using their own mind.”

Limiting tuition increases

For the second year in a row, Republican Rep. William Lawrence of Maysville is proposing legislation that would cap tuition increases and freeze tuition for enrolled students at public universities over a four year period.

When the bill was introduced last year, it garnered some bipartisan support — receiving cosponsorship from several Republicans and Democrats alike — but was never assigned to a committee.

Lawrence said he’s hopeful the bill will gain more traction this year and said he is “cautiously excited.”

“You go and buy a car, you know what the price is going to be. You go and buy a home, you know what the price is going to be,” Lawrence said. “You go to college — the first year, you know what it's going to be. The second year, who knows?” he said.

Student government associations at several public universities have come out in support of iterations of the bill, including at University of Kentucky and University of Louisville. The legislation would not affect community colleges like KCTCS, Lawrence noted, in part because they are already far more affordable than most four-year institutions.

UK spokesperson Blanton said he understands the desire to make college more affordable, but said he doesn’t believe this legislation would accomplish it. Blanton said UK has kept their tuition increase below 2% for several years — the bill caps increases to 5% for in-state students and 7% for out-of-state.

“I think this is true of all the institutions; we have been working in a very strategic and a very strong fashion on holding down costs and increasing access,” Blanton said.

UK does not freeze tuition for admitted students, however, which Lawrence said is one of his main goals with the legislation.

At a recent press conference to announce that Kentucky has the highest enrollment gains of any state, Beshear said he wants to continue looking for ways to make college more affordable, and said he hopes the legislature will have those conversations within colleges as well.

“I am concerned and have been concerned about tuition increases,” Beshear said. “But let me say this, our universities and our community college systems are knocking it out of the park.”

Lawrence said he thinks his bill could help Kentucky continue to make large gains in enrolled students, catching up to other states.

“If we can provide great education, we get people out working in the workforce, get people back into being entrepreneurs and building businesses, we will continue to grow Kentucky,” Lawrence said.

Other legislative efforts that will impact higher education include Rep. Savannah Maddox’s bill to attempt to increase freedom of speech on campus and stop universities from punishing students for speech they make off campus.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.