newsMarch 8, 2024
SEMO celebrated Black History Month and hosted the annual Carpe Diem festival in February. Both honored SEMO’s diversity and the trials many groups have had to endure in American society.

SEMO celebrated Black History Month and hosted the annual Carpe Diem festival in February. Both honored SEMO’s diversity and the trials many groups have had to endure in American society.

Meanwhile, 219 miles away, in Jefferson City, a proposed law, House Bill 2619, was introduced that could alter diversity and education on campus.

According to the Missouri House of Representatives website, the bill “prohibits state departments from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”

Graduate student Camille Shoals said this could be disastrous for SEMO.

She fears removing diversity programs could accelerate Missouri’s higher education attendance issues.

“This could hurt recruitment and retention,” Shoals said. “What’s the point of [diverse students] coming to a smaller town if they’re not going to get a community that looks like them engaging on and off campus.”

Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) has long been a politically polarized topic. The programs were originally introduced during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to address racial inequality in education and the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor.

By the 1990s, DEI had moved its focus solely from race and into all aspects of diversity, including gender, LGBTQ+, ethnic, and religious identities.

Missouri State Representative Doug Richey introduced the bill to an open hearing on Feb. 13, 2024.

“The moniker DEI is a problem. It is a cancer, and it needs to be eradicated,” Richey said.

SEMO’s website states that DEI “Enriches an educational experience, enhances students’ personal life, and prepares students for successful careers in the domestic and global economy.”

Richey, however, says that DEI is a fundamentally racist program.

“What you find taking effect is the propagation, the promotion of the idea that to address past racism, you must deploy present racism. To address past discrimination, it is appropriate to use present discrimination,” Richey said. “That is objectionable and should not be occurring and quite frankly it flies in the face of our state constitution.”

The Office of Equity Initiatives (OEI) is the governing body of SEMO’s DEI program.

The OEI declined an interview on the bill and what implications its implementation might have on affected students, staff and faculty.

Assistant vice president for marketing and communications Tonya Wells stated that the University does not comment on pending legislation.

Although many professors know the bill and speak privately about it, they cannot make official statements.

For adjunct instructor Nic Barna, however, the issue is deeply concerning.

Barna spoke on the condition that his words were not an official statement by SEMO.

“We have to have that understanding of other people, the cultural diversity, cultural humility,” Barna said. “Understanding others as a person is impactful for any career choice that we have.”

Barna was the Director of Fieldwork for SEMO’s social work program before pursuing a career with Gibson Recovery Center and becoming an adjunct instructor.

A core component of the bill could put the accreditation of SEMO’s social work degree in jeopardy, according to Barna.

“All of our courses require diversity equity and diversity practice in our teaching. Every single one of our classes has it baked into them,” Barna said. “That is not just a SEMO thing… that is the expectation when you meet accreditation.”

SEMO and the OEI haven't made any public statements regarding the bill.

Shoals, however, has firsthand experience with the work the OEI does for the student body.

As a black woman on a predominantly white campus, Shoals is used to being the only minority in any given space. Having events that showcase her heritage and culture can help make SEMO feel more like home.

Black History Month is just one of several celebrations that would be far more difficult to host without the OEI, Shoals said.

Assistant to the President Nora Bouzihay operates the OEI and is a personal mentor to Shoals.

Bouzihay attends classes to help students understand the challenges various people, including veterans, LGBTQ+ and disabled people may face.

“She makes sure we are prepared for a culturally competent professional life,” Shoals said. “Depriving us of the opportunity of having someone who is specifically trained and accredited in diversity training makes it harder for us and puts the burden on students to find their own professional development.”

Richey rejects the idea that the United States has had the issues that necessitated the implementation of DEI originally.

“A very loud minority of individuals that are reflective of a very diverse body in appearance, ethnicities and backgrounds… is doing what they can to drive a narrative and an ideology that strikes at the very root of Western ideals and the free society that we have been known to be for many, many decades. Centuries,” Richey said.

Barna said that while there has been significant progress in civil rights in the United States, the push for true equality is not yet complete.

“Social workers are prone to making progress, but we don’t just stop,” Barna said. “Every time we stop, we get pulled back three steps.”

Barna has a deeper concern with the proposed legislation.

As a gay man, he only gained the right to marry in 2015.

He says the bill is a reaction based on fear of the growing diversity within the United States and is an attempt to remove protections created by decades of civil rights activism.

“It’s so important to continue to push forward because of the challenges we face. If it's not from one area, it’s going to be now educational rights, and then it’ll turn into parental rights, and then it’ll turn into gay rights,” Barna said.

Support for students, faculty, and staff is important not only for Barna and Shoals, but for several others who couldn't speak because of the SEMO’s commitment to not comment on the legislation.

“If the university isn't supporting students and helping them be culturally informed leaders, we can't call ourselves a global campus,” Shoals said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, all racial groups except Native Americans and Pacific Islanders have had a significant increase in higher education attainment since 2010. However, all groups except White and Asian Americans remain below the national average.

The bill does not affect the private sector or student groups that do not receive funding from the university.

Students interested in political discourse can find footage of the open hearing here.

HB 2619 passed a committee vote on Feb. 27, 2024, and is proposed to take effect on Aug. 28, 2024, if it passes the Missouri Legislature.