Conservative South Carolina lawmakers target critical race theory, college diversity

STUDENT MARCH: Courtney McLain leads University of South Carolina students in marching from the school to the front of the statehouse. Students were raising awareness about student safety, race relations, student wages and the mishandling of student athlete injuries on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Tracy Glantz/The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — At the University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship college is working to add Braille to nameplates outside professors’ offices after a number of blind and low-vision students said they were having trouble attending office hours.

At Clemson University, the Upstate college offers extra academic support and social opportunities to first-generation students through its FIRST program, helping to ensure they are successful in school.

“That sense of inclusion, that sense of belonging, is really what drives the college experience,” said Julian Williams, USC’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion. “When they feel that their university is home for them … they do better in class, they stick around, they remain connected.”

Both programs fall under their respective schools’ diversity, equity and inclusion offices, offices that some South Carolina legislators have questioned whether should exist. Their efforts are part of a national push to eliminate DEI programs that critics argue push a “woke” agenda on the campuses of public universities and colleges.

A vocal group of ultra-conservative lawmakers say they want to go after DEI programs and funding, arguing that unconscious bias and anti-racism training are being forced onto university faculty, staff and students and is unnecessarily influencing grading, hiring and evaluation practices.

In the last month, that now-18-member group of lawmakers, known as the House Freedom Caucus, has tried to prohibit the state from sending millions of dollars to S.C. colleges and universities for their DEI offices, a total expenditure of more than $8 million.

Though their efforts were unsuccessful, university leaders say they are keeping a close eye on the S.C. State House as one Republican committee chair says she plans to take up DEI-related legislation next year.

First, however, the chair of the House Education and Public Works Committee says lawmakers need to settle on a definition.

“It’s something that means something different to different people and how it’s applied,” said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

Universities spend $8.3 million on DEI

In South Carolina, the state’s publicly-funded colleges and universities spend more than $8.3 million on DEI efforts.

That total includes about $1.7 million at USC’s main Columbia campus for more than a dozen full-time positions, salaries and other costs. Clemson University spends about $2.5 million on its DEI programs, outspending every other South Carolina school, according to figures collected by the Commission on Higher Education and obtained by The State Media Co.

The programs vary at each college

At USC, hip-hop Wednesdays can create a sense of community for students of color on campus, and efforts are underway to make the Horseshoe, a gathering space for students on campus, more accessible to people with disabilities, said Courtney McClain, a USC senior and student activist.

Another DEI initiative, McClain said, is the addition of designated prayer spaces on campus for people to practice their faith.

“Culture wars have nothing to do with issues students face every day,” she said.

In the last year, DEI offices and programs have become targets of predominately conservative politicians, who argue “woke” initiatives at publicly funded colleges and universities are being forced onto faculty, staff and students, making some on campus feel uncomfortable.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, requested information from colleges and universities about DEI programs, leading to cancellations of training opportunities and changing how professors teach, some professors told the Miami Herald. In January, DeSantis also replaced six board members of the liberal arts school New College of Florida. The board last month abolished the school’s diversity office.

Another college, the University of Missouri, recently scrapped diversity statements from its hiring practices after lawmakers filed legislation to ban questions about diversity and race on job applications, The Kansas City Star reported.

“We look forward to actual testimony on a bill and hearings on a bill to talk about what they believe is a boogeyman that we know is not,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “There are the conservatives out there that have put forth this notion that white people are being discriminated against, and we’ve got to stop discrimination wherever it is, if it’s against white people.”

The faction of House lawmakers last month went as far as to collect information from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, which supports and coordinates the state’s higher education system, about diversity, equity and inclusion programs at S.C. colleges and universities.

The commission asked each of the state’s 33 universities and colleges about the cost of the salaries, trainings and operations associated with DEI, including policies, procedures or activities that referenced race, color, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.

“All these schools are teaching something that is problematic,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Adam Morgan, R-Greenville, said last month, asking colleagues to strip money for these programs that he argued are being used in student grading and faculty hiring practices. “They’re mandating, they’re forcing it down teachers' throats and it’s having a corrosive influence on our society, because it’s actually promoting discrimination.”

“DEI divides people,” Morgan added. “It tells people certain groups are better than others, certain groups are the cause of certain people’s ills.”

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank focused on domestic policy, claims that DEI offices “stifle intellectual diversity, prevent equal opportunity, and exclude anyone who dissents from a rigid orthodoxy.” The organization has been the inspiration for some politicians vying to shut down DEI.

Lawmakers in other states are looking to do just the opposite. Proposals in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey may require schools to increase their DEI efforts.

Still, DEI offices aren’t without blemish

As conservatives target DEI programs, turnover is high in diversity offices. New Mexico State University’s Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity has reported five interim directors since 2019. The office has struggled with clashing personalities, a lack of trust and communication issues, and the school struggled to serve all minority groups, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. Black students said it was far from the “champion” they had hoped for at the majority-Hispanic institution.

And despite the good that DEI offices do in South Carolina, some students say universities need to go a step further to change the campus climate. McClain organized a student protest at USC in January to highlight what she said were racism and microaggressions that students experience on campus. A second protest in April also highlighted race relations at USC over student pay, safety and the university’s refusal to remove the names of former slave owners and segregationists that adorn some campus buildings.

At April’s protest, USC senior Dominque Praylow said she is often one of the only minority students in her classes.

“Diversity isn’t just filling a room with Black and Asian and Latino and LGBTQ faces,” Praylow said. “It’s about hearing the needs. It’s about hearing the experiences. It’s about validating those experiences.”

But university leaders stand by the programs, saying that they help better prepare students for their future careers and contribute to the “vibrancy” of college life.

“We are proud of the diversity across our campuses,” USC President Michael Amiridis wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to the Commission on Higher Education. “Our DEI efforts not only foster a culture of caring, but also help individuals become more connected with the larger campus community.”

Clemson’s spokesman Joe Galbraith said the university’s “inclusive excellence efforts provide educational opportunities to citizens and contribute to the economic and wellbeing of the people of the state of South Carolina and beyond. Our mission is to prepare all students for success in their lives with employers in the state, nation and world, and in society. We do so while also fulfilling federal and state legal and accreditation requirements.”

The DEI office at USC, similar to others, serves all different kinds of students and faculty, from veterans to those who are the first in their family to attend college. While the concept of DEI is often associated with race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, it encompasses so much more, university leaders say. A non-exhaustive list includes religion, economic, veteran and disability statuses.

The university would look a lot different without the DEI office – and not for the better, McClain said.

‘We’re not going to rush it’

It’s too late for the South Carolina Legislature to push out standalone legislation that would eliminate DEI offices, or programs.

And lawmakers have appeared unwilling to target those schools through the state budget without input.

But House Education Chairwoman Erickson told The State Media Co. that discussions will have to be completed next year. In 2024, every lawmaker in the 170-member General Assembly will be up for reelection.

“It will take a little bit of time. We’re not going to rush it,” Erickson said.

Erickson said she wants input from the public universities and colleges, citing numbers “all over the map” in the documents provided to lawmakers about DEI programs across the state.

On the House floor last month, Erickson questioned whether eliminating DEI-related money for universities and colleges could dismantle federal grants those schools get. For example, she said the U.S. Department of Energy has given grant money to Clemson University, USC and S.C. State University to study water quality in the Savannah River, money that is contingent on meeting diversity requirement policies.

“Tweezers” may need to be used to make sure the state doesn’t lose federal dollars, she said.

“We don’t want to jeopardize things in place,” Erickson said.

State Rep. Brandon Newton, who is an adjunct instructor and outreach associate for alumni affairs at USC Lancaster, said the Legislature needs to make sure it’s “not playing games with this process.”

“If we accidentally pass this (budget one-year law) and it does affect the accreditation, not only will it affect these students, it affects everyone who has went to that institution and has that degree,” Newton, R-Lancaster, said during the House’s March budget debate. “The licenses that these people get require that their degree be from an accredited program.”