UW Not Likely To Scrap DEI Programs Despite Defunding From Legislature

After a marathon discussion Thursday, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees seemed unlikely to scrap DEI programming despite the Wyoming Legislature defunding it. A final decision is expected Friday.

Leo Wolfson

May 10, 202412 min read

University of Wyoming Union 3 5 24
(Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily)

The future of the University of Wyoming’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office looks brighter than it may have a month ago when the Legislature passed a budget prohibiting state money being used to fund it.

At Thursday’s University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees meeting, not a single trustee or UW President Ed Seidel expressed any support for fully eliminating the office.

What the office will look like moving forward won’t be decided until Friday when the trustees reconvene, but there was universal agreement among almost all representatives of the school that they do not support preferential treatment of almost any kind on campus.

How Did We Get Here?

As a result of the biennial budget passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Mark Gordon earlier this spring, the university is not allowed to use state money to fund the DEI office. Similarly, the Legislature reduced UW’s total funding by $1.7 million, the amount of money being spent on the program.

“That does put pressure on the university that is always somewhat strained for resources,” Seidel said Thursday.

At a March Board of Trustees meeting, Seidel told Cowboy State Daily that the DEI programming would continue in some fashion at UW.

After the March meeting, Seidel assembled a working group to explore how these programs could be funded, changes the school needs to make, review DEI regulations and future plans, and how DEI programming interacts with federal law with grants and contracts. The result of this work was discussed at Thursday’s Trustees meeting.

Seidel said he generally agreed with the working group’s report that was released in April and “strongly endorses” its suggested values for the university.

The report’s DEI recommendations include:

  • Merit-based hiring and grading.

  • Inquiry rather than advocacy in the classroom.

  • Academic freedom and teaching in research.

  • Freedom of expression and creating a space for all voices.

The working group focused its report on programs, activities and functions not using preferential treatment, those that need to be modified to ensure no preferential treatment, and ones that should be discontinued.

What’s DEI?

The Legislature never explicitly defined what is DEI in its budget footnote restricting the money.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said the debate over DEI doesn’t pertain to ignoring the needs of certain people or rejecting diverse perspectives, but rather what she views as an “extreme interpretation” that has politicized DEI into a form of authorized preferential treatment. It’s this type of approach she wants prohibited at the university.

“This notion of one race/gender being inherently racist over another — that’s what we’re talking about here,” she said. “That’s what people across the state are very angry about and they don’t want to see it at their university.”

Defining DEI was one of the tasks tackled by the working group, and Seidel said it was where they tried to most accurately reflect the Legislature’s intent, which he acknowledged is not universally agreed on.

“It’s about advocating, promoting or funding an activity that advantages or disadvantages a group based on various qualities,” Seidel said, which could include, race, sex, nation of origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.

The working group also determined that the Legislature views DEI as the action of a group or an individual that is inherently, unconsciously or implicitly biased, privileged or inherently superior or inferior based on their personal characteristics. Seidel said this represents a viewpoint that preferential treatment should be discouraged.

DEI Isn’t The Same All Over

Kermit Brown, chairman of the trustees, said preferential treatment isn’t embraced at UW, and the national dialogue on DEI doesn’t match what’s happening at the school.

Zebadiah Hall, UW vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, went further and said if it does happen on campus, it’s his responsibility to tell those implementing it to stop it.

The working group established five possible options for the DEI office moving forward.

  • Continue to fund the office with private money.

  • Continue to fund the office, but reorganize and rename it, and fund it with state and or private money.

  • Reorganize the office, change its name and place it under a different university department.

  • Close the office, fire its employees and redirect its duties, such as limited English proficiency programs, to other university departments.

  • Close the office, fire its employees and only redirect federally-required duties to other university departments.

The only option Seidel offered an opinion on was the last, which he does not support.

Seidel also believes the university should harness the word “diversity” as broadly as possible in every possible context, which he believes helps fuel innovation.

“It helps make us a richer place, it helps us come to better decisions because we have different perspectives,” he said. “It helps us have better solutions to the complex problems that we have in our world.”

Preferential Treatment

The working group identified areas of DEI concern in hiring and employment practices now employed by the school:

1. Mandates for search committees to advance candidate pools that included candidates based on their protected class.

2. The option for direct hiring of candidates based on their protected class and without a competitive process.

3. Requests for diversity or loyalty statements from candidates.

4. Requiring search committees to use a diversity statement.

5. Using a Native American land acknowledgement statement not approved by the University.

6. Requiring evaluation of an employee’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the staff annual performance evaluation.

Seidel defended No.1 and said there’s validity to its use, bringing up a situation where a hiring committee failed to find a female candidate for a STEM teaching position. When he directed them to go back and look for a broader pool, they did and found a great candidate, he said.

Trustee Dave True said he found this story concerning because of a rejection of the candidate pool based on gender.

“I don’t think we should say the reason why you sent them back … is because of a lack of group of people,” he said. “That was discrimination because that candidate pool that they brought to you was rejected because it did not have a woman.”

Seidel clarified that he found the lack of women in the candidate pool evidence that the search committee hadn’t looked thoroughly enough.

The working group said the school should track all money used for DEI programming and decide what can be used with its private money and what state money.

DEI ‘Hit List’?

It also highlighted 99 programs on campus that are implementing elements of DEI, and 16 different pieces of the Wyoming Constitution, state and federal law that support some form of DEI. Some at Thursday’s meeting referred to the list of programs as a “hit list,” a description Seidel disagreed with.

“It merely informs us of what kind of activities are going on,” he said, adding that most of these activities are not in or being engaged by the office of DEI.

One is admissions practices. Seidel said undergraduate admissions at UW already conformed to the 2023 Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action in higher education. However, the working group found that some graduate level programs may be using preferential admissions practices. Seidel said this should be reviewed.

Further, the university outlines targeted enrollment percentages for specific races and prioritizes DEI efforts in its Strategic Plan 2023+. The working group said these should be reviewed to remove any kind of preferential or exclusionary treatment.

The working group said the school’s DEI advisory councils, task forces, and committees are supporting the school, but also should be reviewed to ensure their fiscal need and to make sure that they don’t conflict with the school’s core mission. It had a similar perspective on the school’s student support services, saying they also should avoid using any preferential treatment.

It also suggested a content-neutral rule for inviting guest speakers to campus with state money, and encouraging diverse participation in identity-based centers and seminars on campus.


When signing off on the budget, Gordon vetoed a section of the prohibition banning DEI programming and activities at the school, allowing them to fully continue.

Trustee Elizabeth Greenwood mentioned this as an example of why the university may be overreacting on the DEI debate.

“I think we need all to take a step back and realize that very much of what’s been going on can still exist,” she said. “I think we all need to take a step back and not panic and realize that we’re all really committed to a healthy, vibrant university, and that means everybody.”

But Trustee Macey Moore expressed concern, saying the DEI office keeps a lot of its related programming running smoothly. Seidel went further and indicated opposition to closing the office, questioning whether the university is actually committed to DEI if it doesn’t keep it.

“We are going to be committed to many of these activities, whether we have that office or not,” he said.

The Debate

Trustee Brad Bonner said he found it important the working group addressed the DEI definition as it allows the school to juxtapose itself against it.

“The vast majority of activities happening on this campus, they do not fit that definition,” he said.

Seidel took a less enthusiastic tone when discussing the DEI debate, calling it emotional, divisive and upsetting. However, he did express gratitude for the university getting an opportunity to reassess its values.

“Look yourself in the mirror and say, are we conforming to those values everywhere we practice?” he questioned. “How should we be ignored for success moving forward?”

Bonner suggested renaming the office to help with public perception.

“I don’t think it has to be intellectually dishonest,” he said.

Trustee Michelle Sullivan said the DEI dispute is being kindled by people keen on dividing each other and said the university has a real opportunity to do something that supports Wyoming.

The majority of the public who spoke Thursday expressed support for continuing the DEI office and programming in full.

Some criticized the working group’s report as expressing tolerance rather than support for people of minority groups.

Seidel said expressing equal respect for all students and political viewpoints on campus doesn’t equate to only tolerating someone. He mentioned a peaceful demonstration that was held on the UW campus last week showing support for Palestinian and Israeli victims of the ongoing war between the two.

“We actively want to cultivate the expression of free ideas,” he said.

Becca Infante De La Cruz, who was born in Mexico and now works in Multicultural Affairs at the university, said she finds the DEI discussions concerning.

“What you all are doing is making me anxious, making me feel unwelcome at this institution,” she said. “I want to be here for students.”

Lauren McClane, who teaches at the UW Law School, was more pointed and said she could teach an entire class on the constitutional violations removing DEI at the school would create.

“It’s quite ass-backward that the Legislature did all this apparently for equality for all, when in the end what we’re actually going to end up doing is discriminating,” she said.

Message For The Legislature

Natrona County School Board Trustee Mary Schmidt said UW trustees must listen to the Legislature.

She said DEI contradicts American values, and the school is required to provide an academic, not societal, education.

“This is in complete contradiction to what our state and country (are) built on,” she said, adding it’s “being undermined by your office of DEI.”

UW graduate fellow Michelle Mason said the school doesn’t necessarily have to follow the Legislature’s lead.

“Just because the Legislature has a warped view of what DEI is does not make it true,” she said.

Degenfelder countered this point, mentioning that the Legislature is made up of publicly elected officials.

“That is the reality, so we’ve got to be responsive to our elected officials that represent the state,” she said.

Hall said he strongly respects the Legislature, but wants its members to know that, “I’m not an office, I’m a human.” He expressed hope that the university will come out stronger as a result of the DEI discussions.

“I hope for the folks across the state that are confused what DEI means that they come sit with me and spend time with me,” he said. “I care about all the people in this state, and I think all people in this state should have access to this university.”

Seidel said whether people like the makeup of the Legislature or not, he believes it’s sending a powerful signal to the university it must listen to, as it holds the purse strings for a significant portion of the school’s funding. But he also mentioned that the school has significant private resources to fund the DEI programs without the state’s help.

Black 14

Last week, the university announced it will not host a Black 14 Social Justice Summer Institute this summer, a weeklong program that taught high school students about leadership, social justice, diversity skills, fostering confidence, personal ethics and advocacy.

Leaders of the program canceled because of the Legislature’s defunding of DEI.

Seidel called this news “painful.”

“They feel that without such an office, they feel we are no longer supportive of that activity,” he said.

Seidel said he is in discussions with members of the group and is hopeful it will return at some point in the future.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter