OKLAHOMA CITY —  Last week Governor Stitt issued an Executive Order prohibiting state agencies from funding or requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Despite the University of Oklahoma’s statements, the order does not require that Oklahoma universities eliminate all DEI offices. Exceptions and limiting language appear throughout the order, leaving universities with ample room to continue the necessary work of DEI, if they have the will to do so. 

The following statement is attributable to the ACLU of Oklahoma, the American Civil Liberties Union, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP:

“Like House Bill 1775, this Executive Order is yet another attack on inclusive education in Oklahoma’s universities and seeks to undo the hard-fought improvements to university culture advocated for by professors and students. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) efforts foster the empathy, understanding, and historical context necessary for all students to learn in an effective, safe environment. Undermining DEI work robs all students of the education necessary to live in our multi-racial and multicultural world. While the harm falls on all students, these attacks disproportionately harm gender diverse students and students of color. Without DEI offices working to ensure students see themselves represented in the student body, faculty, and coursework, gender diverse students and students of color feel isolated and excluded, both feelings that science has proven undermine educational success.

That harm is why the University of Oklahoma’s apparent leap to eliminate all DEI offices is startling. As dangerous as this Executive Order is, only a handful of sentences apply to universities, and they do not require that universities eliminate DEI programs. The EO requires a “review” of such offices and programs and only “if deemed necessary” are universities required to “restructure and/or eliminate” DEI programs. Other Oklahoma universities have stated they will initiate such a “review.” But according to a statement from OU’s president, OU has apparently skipped to the worst possible outcome and decided to eliminate all its DEI programs.

As many Oklahomans will recall, OU instituted more robust DEI programs after a slew of racist incidents on campus, including a required DEI course (“Gateway to Belonging”) to ensure the safety of Black students. But in the aftermath of H.B. 1775 and now this Executive Order, OU has retreated from its promise to create a safe and inclusive environment. For the sake of Oklahoma’s students, we urge OU to change course, resist this Executive Order, and fight to preserve its DEI programs.

Where OU has misread the Executive Order, the Governor has misread the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was passed in the aftermath of the Civil War to protect Black Americans from discrimination. So it is with painful irony that the Governor cites it in an EO that will undermine the strides Oklahoma has taken to protect people from discrimination.

Likewise, the EO endorses a dangerously overbroad and incorrect reading of Students for Fair Admissions, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case concerning race-conscious college admissions. But the case has no bearing on the broader efforts of DEI offices. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” 600 U.S. 181, 230 (2023). Though that statement applied directly to admissions applications, such considerations are related to the duties of DEI offices working to ensure students of color feel represented, safe, and welcome on college campuses. So, despite the governor’s selective citations, neither the U.S. Constitution nor Supreme Court caselaw support his executive order.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued this factsheet making it clear that “diversity, equity, and inclusion training and similar activities in most factual circumstances are consistent with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI).” Indeed, OCR forewarns that universities that create or otherwise allow for hostile environments on campuses—which DEI programs often help combat—may be violating Title VI.

We implore Oklahoma universities not to jump to conclusions but instead read the EO carefully, understand its narrow scope, and continue to support their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”