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ASU’s DEI Programs To Be “Defunded” – Part II

By Mark A. Murphy PhD, JD

As previously reported (in a Part I HCP Column dated June 5), in May 2024, the UNC Board of Governors passed a new Policy that “defunds” the DEI bureaucracies at all 16 UNC public universities, including Appalachian State University (“ASU”). This Part II Column reports on and summarizes some aspects of the currently existing ASU DEI bureaucracies and their activities, some local reactions to the new UNC Policies, and previews some likely changes at ASU as a result of the new UNC Policies.

The new UNC Policy on “Equality Within The University of North Carolina”requires that students and faculty must be treated as individuals, with continuing Rights of Academic Freedom and Free Speech, and that the University Administrations, staffs, and contractors must insure that diverse individual persons of any background are “invited, included, and treated equally”. But the new Policy also requires that the UNC Universities and their staff and contractors are required to maintain “Institutional Neutrality” on “matters of contemporary political debate or social action”. And as described in the Part I Column, the new policy appears to require that the “DEI bureaucracies” at the 16 UNC universities be “defunded” and the funds re-applied to promote “student success and wellbeing”.

On May 24, Dr. Heather Norris, Interim Chancellor at ASU, commented on the new UNC policy, and quoted President Hans of the UNC Board of Governors, saying “that the role of higher education is to host, rather than settle, debates about the challenging issues facing our democracy….and that “we are here to serve all, not just those who agree with us”. She also stated that “the new policy reaffirms academic freedom and doesn’t touch or impact what is taught in our classrooms or researched in our labs…. We expect System Office guidance related to the new policy soon.”

The prior (now repealed) UNC Policy on “Diversity and Inclusion” had created university bureaucracies to report on “a common set of D&I metrics”. On May 21, 2024, “Open the Books.com” reported (based on Freedom of Information investigations) that ASU directly employs at least 19 fully dedicated “DEI” staff, and 17 additional “appointed DEI” staff, at a total cost (including benefits) of at least $4.42 million dollars a year. It appears likely that those DEI staff and activities will be “defunded” under the new UNC policies, and may be redirected to improve “student success and well-being”.

In order to understand more about what will be defunded, we examined the activities of ASU’s existing DEI programs and staff by examining the relevant materials and announcements from ASU’s official website. ASU’s DEI programs have clearly gone far beyond “D&I metrics reporting” but have probably been somewhat less radical than the DEI activities at many other large universities. ASU hasn’t experienced violent protests or political “encampments”. ASU’s DEI-related programs and activities have typically been voluntary for both faculty and/or students. Faculty and students have not typically been required to file formal “DEI Statements” for admission, hiring, or promotions, though some “informal” allegiance of ASU faculty to DEI ideology may have been expected in some ASU Departments.

ASU’s official “Strategic Plan”, its “Office of Diversity,” and multiple ASU Academic Departments have however clearly and purposely engaged in promotion of DEI-related political concepts and ideology. For example, ASU’s “Strategic Plan 2022-2027” lists six major priorities, one of which is “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”.  The Strategic Plan listed the following DEI sub-priorities: “Advance Scholarship related to diversity, equity, and inclusion”, and “Provide resources…that help infuse a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion”. 

At the staff level, ASU’s “Office of Diversity” has sponsored and publicized multitudes of campus events promoting DEI ideologies. In one recent example, ASU’s Office of Diversity organized and promoted on it’s website a day-long “DEI Connect” Symposium on April 5, 2024 on the ASU campus, which consisted of “DEI-related research presentations, a skills roundtable, and networking”.

Multiple ASU academic departments describe their DEI programs and activities on the official ASU website, and many of the Departmental webpages promote DEI-related concepts and terminology.  For example, the Walker College of Business’s webpage describes a DEI Team that aspires to provide a “welcoming and empowering home for every business student, faculty, and staff member” and “acknowledge societal injustices toward marginalized groups”, and “recognize and overcome our own biases.”  The Counseling, Family Therapy, and Higher Education Department’s webpage aspires to honor persons “across the intersections of their identities and narratives…of those who have been historically and continually marginalized” They also “strive infuse diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into the fabric of our department though ongoing curricular revision, faculty evaluation, and faculty and staff development”. The departmental webpage also “discusses power and privilege …to generate purposeful action toward dismantling systemic oppression.” None of those Departmental DEI programs and/or goals seems likely to be permissible under the new UNC “Institutional Neutrality” policies for organizational “subdivisions” of ASU such as its Academic Departments.

However, the new UNC policy does make it clear that individual UNC faculty and students will retain their rights of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in connection with political issues and debates, and will be able to use university facilities for political activities, so long as they do not receive other types of support from the ASU Administration and Staff, and otherwise comply with other university policies.

To explore the effects of the existing ASU DEI programs on Conservative-leaning students, this author interviewed three leaders of the ASU College Republicans. They described the overall ASU social and political environment as being predominantly “Progressive” among both faculty and students, but not often “threatening”. The three students said that DEI-related issues were regularly topics in their Social Science and Humanities classes, but that little reasoned debate actually occurs among the students. They said they encountered significant social ostracism and name-calling from many “Progressive” students, but that a substantial fraction of ASU students weren’t very interested in either DEI and/or political issues.  They were however convinced that some (but not all) faculty members would penalize their grades if they expressed Conservative arguments or ideas. 

As reported in the High Country Press on June 6, the Executive Director of the North Carolina ACLU described these developments at the UNC universities as “deeply troubling”. Many readers will also be aware that Dr. Virginia Foxx has been the High Country’s U.S. Congressional Representative since 2005.  She had an early career as a college instructor, including at ASU.  She is now Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Dr Foxx’s Committee has held multiple hearings on DEI-related issues over the past two years. We solicited her comments on the recent UNC developments, and we received the following comment from Dr. Foxx:

“The Board of Governors has done the entire UNC System a favor by gutting the DEI bureaucracy in every place it has taken root – it is a cancerous ideology. I’ve already taken its trumpeters to task many times over this congress alone, and I have no intention of letting up. Allowing DEI to further permeate institutions, the free enterprise system, and society overall is something that Americans do not want to see happen.”

It appears that Interim ASU Chancellor Heather Norris, her staff, and the faculty have a formidable task before them, to adapt the ASU policies and programs to comply with the new DEI-related Policies just imposed by the UNC Board of Governors, by the Fall 2024 Semester.