Arkansas universities adapt to affirmative action changes



(The Center Square) – Some higher education institutions in Arkansas have maintained demographic targets after the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back affirmative action earlier this year but say no groups get an unfair advantage.

On Monday, lawmakers on the Higher Education Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council Joint Performance Review Committee heard how universities in the state are implementing diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI initiatives.

“This is just a discussion,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who serves as subcommittee chair. “There’s a lot of us who are just not familiar with the expanse and where it’s implemented.”

Representatives from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences told committee members their target is for the population of the institution’s students, faculty and staff to mirror the demographics of the state of Arkansas.

“We do have targets to mirror the population but we don’t do anything to give any group an unfair advantage over another group,” said UAMS Chief Strategy Officer Stephanie Gardner.

Sullivan asked how the university plans to reach demographic targets without minimizing quality.

“Sometimes there’s this misconception that you have to lower the standard, that you have to change the standards to reach those targets,” said Dr. Brian Gittens, the Vice Chancellor for UAMS Division for DEI. “We’ve done nothing to change the standard in terms of qualifications for our faculty, staff, or students to meet those targets.”

Colin Crawford, dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions led to some adjustments for them to comply with the law.

“All of us in the country are watching how the opinion might extend to other areas,” Crawford said. “Previous to this year, applications typically asked students to identify their race, ethnicity, and so on. There is now an option by virtue of the Supreme Court opinion to suppress that information when it goes to schools’ admissions committees. In order to comply with that opinion, we have suppressed that information.”

Crawford said while the information still gets collected, it doesn’t come to the school at the time of admissions, so that race and ethnicity are not considered in those decisions.

“It is unfortunate that DEI has become a pejorative,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock. “But we hopefully have a commitment in this state that we will lift all of our citizens so that they are able to achieve as much as they can regardless of their race, their creed, or their socioeconomic status.”

DEI also affects the accreditation process, school officials said. Dr. Erin Finzer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said each accrediting body for a discipline is an independent body, and DEI is valued differently across different professions and disciplines.

“Where do we have a seat as far as the accrediting bodies and us as a state saying ‘No, we don’t want that,'” asked Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton. “ That’s not what DEI was originally established for, it’s been hijacked, it’s been taken away. We want to get back to what it was originally intended for.”



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