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After the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, are college DEI offices in danger?


Now that the Supreme Court has removed racial preference from the college admissions process, we wondered if there will be anything left for college DEI offices to do. DEI is diversity, equity and inclusion - the people who help support students from marginalized backgrounds. Paulette Granberry Russell is president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.


RASCOE: Obviously, this isn't just idle curiosity on our part. Lawmakers in Florida and Texas have passed legislation to defund DEI offices at public universities. There are similar bills in Ohio and the Carolinas. What's the response from your members?

RUSSELL: Well, our response has been to organize and help to better educate local communities, our state legislators more broadly, the country, to support diversity, equity and inclusion. That education is an essential part of dispelling some of the myths and misrepresentations of the work.

RASCOE: What are some of those myths and misrepresentations that you feel like you're having to push back on?

RUSSELL: The first is that somehow diversity, equity and inclusion represents excluding individuals from higher education that would otherwise be situated in those spaces, absent efforts to increase diversity. And when I define diversity, I mean that broadly. It extends beyond race and gender and LGBTQ status.

RASCOE: You mean the idea that DEI efforts are a way to, say, you know, keep out white male students?

RUSSELL: Yes. It's a way of demonizing and I think playing to individuals who believe that we're engaging in efforts to exclude more deserving individuals, whether that's students, whether that's our faculty, whether it's our staff.

RASCOE: In some cases, like at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, the DEI office is closing, but those staff members are not losing their jobs, according to the university. Instead, they're being reassigned to places like human resources or student success centers. Is that something that your organization would support?

RUSSELL: That would not be the preferred approach. A central diversity office provides that kind of oversight, if you will, guidance, support. If the institution is saying, you know, we're looking at how many students, based on gender or race, are in the department of physics, where we know we've historically been underrepresented by women and persons of color, having a central unit helps support what's being done in that department of physics to help build the capacity of that department of physics to understand the unique ways that you have to recruit to ensure that you're getting more women and persons of color to think about physics.

RASCOE: Do you have any worry that the Supreme Court may also at some point say that specific outreach to certain groups or looking at the numbers and saying, you know, say, in physics, that, you know, these groups are underrepresented, that that type of targeted recruiting could also run afoul of, you know, what they - how they view the Constitution?

RUSSELL: Well, you know, I think what the court is addressing are the decisions that are being made to admit students, which is very different from this question of how you recruit. But I guess at this point, many of us are questioning, how far is the reach of that opinion?

RASCOE: What is your advice for students who are watching all of this play out right now?

RUSSELL: I think students need to do as much homework as they can about the institution. I think too often students - if they're first generation, they have no real understanding sometimes, nor do they have members within their family who can guide them in that process. But be more scrutinizing about what you see. Ask about the programs that you have that support students like me - OK? - in the way that - what's important to me?

I'm interested in music. Tell me more about the programs and the ways in which you support students in music. You know, it's that sense of, is this going to be a place that I feel wanted, welcome, supported? Too often I think our students or prospective students - they've identified the school that they want to go to and whatever it is that attracts them to it. But they don't often know how to advocate for themselves. Learning to do that is very important.

RASCOE: That's Paulette Granberry Russell. She is the president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. Thank you so much.

RUSSELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.