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Anti-DEI bill targeting higher education clears Kentucky Senate committee

Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green,
LRC Public Information
Republican Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green is sponsoring one of several bills legislating diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (DEI) at Kentucky schools, colleges and universities.

A Kentucky Senate committee advanced a bill that’s aimed at curtailing DEI efforts in Kentucky’s public colleges and universities.

One of several bills this session taking aim at diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (DEI) is on the move in the Kentucky Senate.

Under Senate Bill 6, Kentucky’s public colleges and universities couldn’t ask students or staff to endorse certain concepts that the bill describes as “discriminatory.”

The legislation has a long list of such concepts, many of which draw from former president Donald Trump’s 2020 ban on certain DEI efforts in federal agencies, such as racial sensitivity training.

“I have filed this bill on behalf of students and faculty whose First Amendment rights are being violated, and face a shifting, stifling, politically correct academic atmosphere,” Bill Sponsor Republican Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green told the Senate Education Committee Thursday.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of concepts colleges and universities can’t offer trainings on, or, ask students to endorse:

  • “An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”
  • “The Commonwealth of Kentucky or the United States of America is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”
  • “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form  of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex”

Opponents say the measure would impede academic freedom and make campuses less welcoming to people of color and other underrepresented groups.
Wilson was joined by University of Kentucky student Rebekah Keith, who testified in support of the measure. Keith said she was denied a campus job opportunity and discriminated against by a professor because of her conservative beliefs about gender.

“When the topic of gender was brought up, I again restated that I believe that there are only male and female, as there are,” Keith said.

The professor later sent Keith an email saying she “wasn't recognizing the humanity of the other students in class,” she said. As a result, the professor said Keith had broken the UK code of conduct.

“It’s actions like these that are taken at UK to try to force people to bend the knee ideologically and force them to not speak up about what they really believe,” Keith told the committee.

University of Louisville Accounting Professor Ben Foster also testified in support of the measure. Foster described pressure at U of L for faculty to hold progressive beliefs, such as a recognition of “white privilege.”

“I didn't feel that privileged when I was a kid and had to go use an outhouse in the winter,” Foster said.

SB 6 is one of three measures filed so far this session targeting DEI efforts on K-12 and college campuses. They are similar to legislation making its way through GOP-led legislatures across the country, including in Florida and Texas. Both states banned certain DEI efforts in public colleges and universities last year.

Many conservatives are particularly riled by the popularity of “diversity statements” required of or requested from applicants for faculty positions.

Some opponents of SB 6 say bill supporters have misunderstood DEI initiatives.

Aaron Thompson, President of the Council of Postsecondary Education said DEI initiatives are about expanding college access to people of all backgrounds, including those who have been underrepresented.

“We need more faculty and staff of color, to be honest … we need more men from Clay County Kentucky to go to college and get a degree. We need more adult learners — that's in our DEI policy,” he said.

Thompson thanked Wilson for bringing forward an amended version of the bill, which originally allowed private individuals to sue colleges for up to $100,000 for running afoul of SB 6.

The committee substitute approved would allow the Kentucky attorney general to investigate complaints and enforce the measures.

The latest version of the measure also requires colleges to hold new student orientations emphasizing the importance of freedom of speech, including “unpopular speech.”

Rebecca Blankenship, executive director of the Kentucky Student Rights Coalition, told the committee the legislation is overly broad and a threat to academic freedom and classroom speech.

“It states that students should not be made to feel discomfort because of race or sex. Okay, how many topics are charged around the matters of race and sex? A discussion of abortion is something that could run afoul of this bill,” she said.

2024 High School Teacher of the Year Kumar Rashad pointed to an FBI report finding that anti-Black hate crimes are the most common hate crimes on K-12 and college campuses.

“A vote for this bill is an anti-Black vote, because you're essentially saying that I'm not allowed to express myself. My reality doesn't matter,” he said.

The measure passed along party lines. Sen. Lindsey Tichenor of Smithfield and other Republicans said they believed it protects people’s right to express themselves “on both sides.”

The committee’s two Democrats, and only Black members, voted against SB 6.

“We are in the midst of racism right now,” Louisville Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal said. “It affects people differently. We're all individuals, but to begin to create constructs that either suppress and do not ameliorate the situation — what can I say?”

The measure heads to the Senate floor. The committee has yet to hear Senate Bill 93, which takes aim at DEI efforts in K-12 public schools.

LPM's state government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.