Utah Republican Sen. John Johnson of North Ogden shelved his controversial bill proposing the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and leadership positions at public universities in Utah, saying it was “way too harsh.” Johnson, a staunch conservative who opposes discussions of racism in classrooms, drafted SB283, which many see as the latest in a series of bills targeting diversity in the state.
At a hearing on Monday, the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee voted to move the bill to an interim study item. The decision was met with quiet claps and a few cheers from those in attendance who had come to oppose the measure.
Rep. Michael J. Petersen, R. North Logan, was the House sponsor of the bill.
On Friday, the only Black state lawmaker in Utah, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, made an impassioned speech against an earlier bill to restrict schools from asking an applicant anything about their work to further inclusion. She questioned the motivations behind the bill and the reasons why her colleagues were introducing it, saying, “I don’t know what we’re doing anymore … I don’t know what the fear is.”
Despite her impassioned plea, the House voted on Friday to pass HB451 on party lines and the bill was forwarded to the Senate.
On Monday morning, members of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee killed the bill 1–4, with only Johnson supporting it.
Johnson, while supporting the decision to pull SB283 for the current session, maintained that he stood behind his original motivation for drafting it, stating that many stakeholders had expressed concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion offices within public universities potentially prioritizing political or social ideologies over academic rigor and intellectual diversity. Johnson, who is also a professor at Utah State University, did not mention his position at the university during the hearing.
The senator stated that his bill aimed to safeguard institutions of higher education from DEI bureaucracies to help them maintain academic freedom. He also noted that roughly $11 million is spent on these programs at Utah colleges and universities every year and called for more accountability for that funding. Johnson is now pushing for a study on what the programs do and who they help.
He also acknowledged that he did not believe he had given all stakeholders a fair chance to weigh in and hoped to do so in the interim, stating that his proposal was meant to “bring people to the table and start honest conversations.” Johnson further added that he felt the original bill was “way too harsh” and that it was not his intention to eliminate Black history or any other protections for students. Instead, he believed that there needed to be a robust discussion on the issue.
The Utah Black Roundtable issued a statement opposing the original draft of the bill, stating that it would lead to people being “oppressed and discriminated” against. The group also questioned what had happened to the promises made by state leaders, including the governor, when they signed the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in 2020, where they acknowledged racism and vowed to fight disparities. Utah Tech Leads, which represents the growing tech industry in the state, also opposed the bill, stating that it would hurt the ability of tech businesses to bring in new and diverse staff.
There was little discussion from the legislative committee on the bill after it was amended into a study item. Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Latino Democrat representing Salt Lake City, thanked Johnson for making the changes and sparing her from “reading a five-minute speech” opposing the bill.
Senate and House Democrats earlier in the day released a statement supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the state and asked that any bill that was past that limited the ideals be brought up for reconsideration.