The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education scrambled hundreds of employees to compile a 10-year review of its spending history on and current materials used for diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs at the urgent request of the governor’s secretary of education and newly elected state superintendent.
The board identified $10.2 million budgeted for DEI activities for the current fiscal year, of which the state contributed $3.7 million. The regents said that amounts to 0.29% of all higher education spending and 0.11% of state expenditures on higher education.
State Superintendent and Education Secretary Ryan Walters made the request of Allison Garrett, chancellor of higher education, in a letter sent Jan. 23 with a response deadline of Feb. 1. At the time, his office said the purpose was to scrutinize the OSRHE annual budget request for state funding for Fiscal Year 2024.
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“The linked materials represent the best efforts of hundreds of staff across the state system of higher education to provide the requested information in a very short amount of time during the busy start of the spring semester,” Garrett wrote in her Feb. 1 response, which is a public record the Tulsa World obtained through an official request.
Garrett gave a lengthy list of the students of varied backgrounds and needs that DEI programs seek to recruit into and support throughout higher education as a means of opening up new career pathways.
In addition to DEI programs dealing with race and gender identity, which Walters has expressed specific concerns about since his candidacy for elected state office over all prekindergarten through 12th grade public schools, Garrett’s list of targeted populations includes military veterans, adults, low-income students, disabled people, single mothers, international students including refugees, and students aging out of foster care.
“It is important to note that there are certain laws that require diversity, equity and inclusion practices, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, Higher Learning Commission and program-specific accreditors — including those for nursing, engineering, education, and business degree programs — require institutions to demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion in their practices, policies and curriculum to maintain accreditation,” Garrett wrote to Walters.
“Our goal as a state system is to meet the needs of all the students we serve, helping them in every way we can to enroll, persist and complete their degrees successfully to become the doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, and computer programmers of tomorrow.”
Garrett’s letter links Walters to information that includes a 33-page chart showing that the state’s public colleges and universities spend less than one-third of 1% on DEI and about one-tenth of 1% of state higher education funds. The state’s two-year colleges, which tend to cater more to underserved populations, spent $4.8 million on DEI last year, compared to $3.7 million for the two research universities and $1.7 million for the four-year regional schools.
The chart indicates that spending on DEI, both in dollars and as a budget share, has edged up by less than one-half of 1%.
Put another way, the entire higher education system spends less on diversity, equity and inclusion than the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University spends on basketball coaches.
Garrett is CEO of a state system comprising 25 state colleges and universities, 11 constituent agencies, one university center, and independent colleges and universities coordinated with the state system. She reports to a constitutional board whose nine members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
In October, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education voted to request $986 million in state funding for fiscal year 2024, which reflects an increase of $105.1 million, 11.9% over the fiscal year 2023 adjusted appropriation of $880.9 million.
Total instructional and operational spending from all sources, including tuition and fees, federal support and private funds, exceeded $3.5 billion. That figure does not include capital budgets or auxiliary enterprises such as student housing and food service.
Walters was appointed to the education secretary position in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Cabinet in 2020 and then was elected state superintendent in November. His signature on his letter to Garrett lists both titles.
Throughout his campaign and in social media posts that have continued since he was sworn in this month, Walters has said his top governance priority is ridding public education of “liberal indoctrination,” and he has specifically criticized DEI training for employees.
Earlier this week, the Tulsa World asked Walters through what authority and in what way would he be using the information obtained from OSRHE.
“Transparency,” he said on Monday. “As secretary of education, still in that cabinet role, Higher Ed sends me their budget that I look over (and sign off on) and they send me their strategic plan. To see how much money is being spent on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which we’ve got a lot of feedback around, a lot of concerns around, around these white privilege walks and around the shaming of one race or another or saying one race is superior or inferior to another.
“We’ve got to empower parents through transparency and through school choice.”
Walters volunteered that he had spoken to numerous members of the Board of Regents before sending the request about his ”expectations” about expenditures.
“I’ve always asked a lot of questions over these budgets and I’ve been getting a lot more feedback from parents and college students,” he said.
He offered an anecdotal example of a parent he said he never met before who recently told him about bringing his son to a state college to learn more about its engineering program “and they kept talking about diversity, equity and inclusion … and he took his kid off of the tour of the campus because he told them, look, I told you what my kid wants to do here and you keep pushing this on him, so he’s just going to go to another college.”
In a second letter, sent Jan. 26, Walters asked Garrett a host of additional questions, including about OSRHE’s portfolio investment decisions, college and university student retention and graduation rates, and 10-year enrollment trends.
He gave her a deadline of Feb. 7 for those answers.