Rebranding: Wisconsin DEI Worker Says the Name of Her Organization Changed but the Workers Are the Same

AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File

I've written a couple of times about the rebranding effort underway among some campus DEI offices. Last week the NY Times reported this was happening at schools around the country, anywhere that DEI programs were facing pushback from state legislators.

At the University of Tennessee, the campus D.E.I. program is now called the Division of Access and Engagement.

Louisiana State University also rebranded its diversity office after Jeff Landry, a Trump-backed Republican, was elected governor last fall. Its Division of Inclusion, Civil Rights and Title IX is now called the Division of Engagement, Civil Rights and Title IX.

And at the University of Oklahoma, the diversity office is now the Division of Access and Opportunity.

In what appears to be an effort to placate or, even head fake, opponents of diversity and equity programs, university officials are relaunching their D.E.I. offices under different names, changing the titles of officials, and rewriting requirements to eliminate words like “diversity” and “equity.” In some cases, only the words have changed.

There are more examples like this in Georgia, Florida and Texas but you get the idea. Schools are just changing the name so these programs are more likely to fly under the radar.

Today I came across this PBS interview with a DEI official from Madison College in Wisconsin. Chevon Bowen was drafted into doing DEI work in 2020.

When the events of George Floyd happened and our president said we need to really start putting a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, then our college started having these different initiatives that started coming off, right?

And so the first one was we need to have our different schools formulate committees that are going to champion this work.

And so, you know, the associate dean I was working with at the time came up to me and said, “Hey, this thing is going on, would you wanna do it?”...

We had a new equity and inclusion plan that was developed, and you know, all of these directives of what we should be doing, and so we just kind of dove in and started trying to build things.

I remember when we first started doing the work in the institute, and you know, we knew that we wanted to find ways to be able to embed different types of learning outcomes related to DEI into various classes that students are taking.

But just as the culture shifted toward DEI work in 2020, the pendulum has since swung back the other way. So the branding changed but not the staff or the work itself.

I do recognize that because of things that have happened that are outside of our control, that we’ve had to shift a little bit, right?

So I originally started this work working in the Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.

We’re all still there, but now we’re called the Division of College Culture and Climate...

All the work that we’re trying to do in terms of, you know, creating equitable spaces, right?

Inclusive spaces, creating a sense of belonging for everyone in our community, you know, that hasn’t changed any.

Bowen isn't specific about what changed that led to the rebranding of her office but state lawmakers did have a showdown last year with the University of Wisconsin:

In a stunning reversal of a position it had taken just a few days before, the Universities of Wisconsin (UW) Board of Regents voted Wednesday evening to approve a deal with Republican legislators that would limit the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

The deal at issue had been negotiated by the university’s own administrators with Robin Vos, the top Republican in the Wisconsin State Assembly after six months of bargaining had yielded an agreement that would have required UW to end various DEI initiatives in exchange for new money for the UW system.

More recently, Republicans in Wisconsin proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit DEI efforts.

The proposal passed Thursday would prohibit state and local governments, including the Universities of Wisconsin and local school districts, from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to anybody on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. It requires hiring decisions to be based on “merit, fairness and equality,” a term conservatives have used as a counter to DEI.

Conservative backers of the constitutional amendment say the programs are discriminatory and promote left-wing ideology. Democratic supporters say the programs are necessary for ensuring institutions and government meet the needs of increasingly diverse populations.

The measure’s sponsor, Republican Rep. David Murphy, said during debate that the amendment “restores merit, fairness and equality in hiring.”

It could be a while before that amendment becomes law but it's fair to say the writing on the wall. And the issue of DEI statements in hiring has become particularly controversial lately. I don't know if Madison College requires DEI statements but the DEI page on its website says it was reviewing the hiring process in 2020.

Anyway, I think legislators need to be aware that schools everywhere are doing this in response to efforts aimed at dialing back on DEI. Until pressed, they simply rename things a bit and hope that will be seen as good enough. If you're interested in watching the video of the whole interview, it's here.

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