I became president of the Outlet Alliance, our version of what was then popularly known as a gay-straight alliance, my freshman year at Western Kentucky University. I held this position for three semesters before concentrating on my role in the Student Government Association. 

In my capacity as the SGA Director of Academic and Student Affairs, I authored legislation calling on WKU to preserve the university’s LGBT resource center. “They’re literally turning it into a closet,” I recall pithily explaining during debate. And they did: though my resolution passed, The Outlet (from which the alliance took its name) closed and the residence hall it was in used the suite for storage.

Two decades later, I’m on a new campus now as a graduate student but am watching as similar attacks are being made on universities across our region. 

In February, Senator Mike Wilson, a Republican from Bowling Green – home to WKU – complained about “liberal ideologies fashionable in our public universities” as he filed a bill in the Kentucky Legislature meant to curtail university diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Opponents warned the legislation “could roll back gains in minority enrollments and stifle campus discussions on topics dealing with past discrimination,” according to the Associated Press. The bill failed to become law, but Wilson has promised to bring the assault on marginalized students, faculty and staff back in 2025.  

Wilson’s bill is one of many attacks on DEI across Appalachia, the most visible being in the University of North Carolina system. In April, the UNC system’s Committee on University governance, with no conversation or debate on the matter, moved to eliminate DEI offices and initiatives from its 17 universities. The change is likely to be approved by the system’s Board of Governors, all of whom were nominated and approved by the gerrymandered Republican supermajorities in the state legislature.

Fallout from the expected decisions is already spreading, at least according to LGBTQ students and allies at Appalachian State University. They allege their campus’ annual Pride Week, held in April, was forcibly rebranded as “Spring Fest” without consultation with student leaders. 

Other students have alleged a planned Drag Bingo was cancelled by the administration, something a university spokesperson denied to Teen Vogue. That explanation does not wash with many students. “My disgust comes from [school leaders] giving up before they have too,” Evan Foster, a gay App State student, told the magazine. He believes both the rebranding of Pride Week and the elimination of drag was the administration’s attempt to preemptively block attacks from the UNC system that governs it and the state legislature. 

These concerns are echoed by Jax Lastinger who, until they were terminated in March, served as a director of DEI educational development and campus climate strategies at App State. 

“About a month and a half before the termination, they said, a supervisor told them to remove certain words — including ‘unconscious bias,’ ‘intersectionality’ and ‘microaggression’ — from the DEI trainings they delivered to campus community members,” Inside Higher Ed reports, a charge a university spokesperson did not deny.

Lastinger was one of four employees involved with LGBTQ+ faculty and staff groups recently fired by App State. While the university denies efforts to erode or eliminate DEI initiatives, Inside Higher Ed reports that two of the terminated employees were simply told that “North Carolina is an at-will state” with no further explanation given. 

While the university continues to deny any attempt to curtail free expression or DEI at App State, the events there do not exist in a vacuum. It follows the passage last year of a so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” which among other things required K-12 schools to out transgender students to their parents and prohibited including LGBTQ topics in elementary school curriculums

This comes after the state’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, who is currently his party’s nominee for the top job in the Tar Heel State, called gay and transgender people “filth.” While all but one recent poll shows him trailing his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Josh Stein, most polls suggest a tight race. With more than six months until election day, the prospect of a virulent homophobe and transphobe driving state policy further right is a real prospect.

North Carolinians need only look across the Smokey Mountains to see what that may look like. Republican supermajorities in the Tennessee legislature, buoyed by GOP Governor Bill Lee, have executed a full-frontal assault on LGBTQ rights and DEI initiatives across the Volunteer State. 

“Wokeness has infected higher education,” Republican State Senator Joey Hensley declared last year in an op-ed for the rightwing New York Post. He was bragging about having passed a law radically overhauling DEI at the state’s universities. “DEI staff are now required to strengthen intellectual diversity, uphold the free exchange of ideas and focus on workforce development and career readiness for students,” he claimed.

Except, that is not what has happened. Instead, speech on campus has been chilled as professors contend with not only Hensley’s DEI restrictions but another bill prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” in state college and university classrooms. Along with allowing students to report faculty who run afoul of this law – a McCarthyite tool of speech suppression and academic freedom if I’ve ever seen one – it also requires “any University employee who has diversity, equity, or inclusion in their job title” to “work to strengthen intellectual diversity and promote free and respectful exchange of ideas…” according to the East Tennessee State University website dedicated to these new laws.

That sounds innocent enough in theory, but in practice it has already led to the stifling of leftwing voices on Tennessee campuses. Last year, ETSU forced a drag show to change campus venues (after students allege they tried to cancel it) and prohibited parents from bringing minor children in advance of a Tennessee law, which was swiftly overturned by a federal court, banning those under 18 from attending, a move the university defended. “We have a responsibility as a public institution to honor the intent of the legislature,” Jess Vodden, Chief Marketing and Communication Officer for ETSU, told me at the time.

My reporting (for the Independent) – as well as reporting by other national outlets, including the Washington Post – found LGBTQ students at ETSU, like at App State, felt silenced and marginalized by the university’s proactive embrace of rightwing policies. “Who are the [ETSU administrators] going to stand with?” Aria Inaba, a student activist, asked me rhetorically. “It seems very clear who they are standing with.”

Universities are frequently choosing to stand with far-right legislators over their own students. Administrators would claim that state universities have an interest in ensuring the administration and students obey state law. It is difficult to argue with that position. The problem, then, is the law. 

While passed under the guise of promoting free speech and eliminating biases, anti-DEI legislation (along with explicitly anti-LGBTQ legislation) have the opposite effect, chilling any speech that runs afoul of the far-right agenda of Republican lawmakers who, as in North Carolina, hold a supermajority in the Tennessee legislature. The blame lays primarily on the shoulders of legislators in Raleigh and Nashville, determined as they are to erode the hard-won gains of minority students, staff and faculty. 

Colleges themselves are not faultless, though. Rather than standing up for students, universities across our region are complicit accomplices to far-right lawmakers as they dismantle gains in equity and inclusion. In their hostile bid to silence minority voices and dissent while empowering authoritarian actors on Appalachian campuses, these legislators have found allies in administrators more concerned about preserving their own institutional power and privilege than defending pluralism. 

This has real-world implications for minority students. A 2022 study by the University of California-Los Angeles’ Williams Institute found that “LGBTQ people were four times more likely to report having picked a university in a different city or state to seek a more welcoming climate” while nearly a third of LGBTQ people “experienced bullying, harassment, or assault at college” compared to only 18.9% of non-LGBTQ people. Furthermore, LGBTQ people were, by a margin of more than 10 points, less likely to report feeling “a sense of belonging” on their campus.

Republican lawmakers may be giddy at these statistics, but university administrators should not be. A commitment to not just viewpoint diversity – which is already failing at Appalachian universities as events at ETSU demonstrate – but actual diversity is important not just to making sure that LGBTQ students are welcomed on campuses. 

It also ensures that minority students are receiving an equitable education. A 2023 survey on retention rates at American universities found that while Asian students have the highest retention at 88.4%, Native American students have a retention rate of only 62.1% while Black student retention is at 65.8%. This is compared to an 80.5% retention rate for white students. 

Closer to home, ETSU’s own data shows its Black student retention lags behind its white student retention by nearly 10%. App State’s retention data is obscured by the fact that it lumps all “underrepresented students” into one category, but even that lags behind overall student retention by four points. The most recent data I can find from WKU is a 2021 article from the university’s journalism school: In 2016, the university reported that Black retention was 53.3% compared to 72.3% for white students.

This is why DEI initiatives are so vital to our universities. College administrators may be going along with anti-DEI and other initiatives hostile to marginalized voices, but they are not instigating them. Republicans, whether those elected to state legislatures or the conservative activists they appoint to oversee state universities, are. 

That’s the difference between the 2000s, when I fought to keep the Outlet open at WKU, and today. The university closed the LGBT resource center then. Now, it’s the state that wants to do it.

Thinking back on my time at WKU, I don’t know if I would have made it through my freshman year without the Outlet. This was 2004, when Kentucky passed an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage. I felt hated by the people of my own state.

The Outlet was where I went to find folks who supported, nurtured and celebrated me. It was where I found acceptance and belonging for the first time. It was not a place of indoctrination, but a small, comfortable space filled with bean bag chairs, silly gay rom-coms and so many friends who saw me through. It’s why I fought so hard to keep it open, and why I was so excited when WKU eventually opened a wonderful Pride Center in the student union. 

With Republican attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion at our region’s universities, I fear such centers will be forced to close either by Republicans who legislate them out of existence or administrators so frightened and spineless they decide not to risk the wrath of homophobic and transphobic lawmakers, prioritizing themselves over their students.

In doing so, Appalachia’s university administrators have – wittingly or unwittingly – become stooges in an all-out assault on pluralism and multiracial democracy. In an in-depth investigation of GOP activists agitating against DEI, the New York Times in January reported that “in candid private conversations, some wrote favorably of laws criminalizing homosexuality, mocked the appearance of a female college student as overly masculine and… lamented that some Republicans still celebrated the idea of racially diverse political appointments.”

Scott Yenor, who leads the far-right Claremont Institutes anti-DEI project, went further. “My big worry in these things is that we do not make ‘the good of minorities’ the standard by which we judge public policy or the effects of public policy… Whites will be overrepresented in some spheres. Blacks in others. Asians in others. We cannot see this as some moral failing on our part.”

Yenor and his ilk want white supremacy. We cannot let them have it, even if university administrators across the region seem willing to give far-right legislators and activists carte blanche to remake our campuses to match their dystopian fever dreams. Unable or unwilling to stop this hateful takeover of higher education, these administrators – from presidents down to associate deans and everyone in between – are putting their own selfish desires to maintain institutional power and privilege over the wellbeing of their students, staff, and faculty and, crucially, the very freedoms on which a robust academy depends.

That is a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem is far-right political machinations being translated into policy. With neutered administrators unwilling to speak up or push back, it falls on us to oust the people we can: the reactionary politicians running our universities from state capitals. DEI at Appalachian universities, and with it the hopes and dreams of marginalized students across our region, will be saved not on campuses, but at the ballot box. 

Skylar Baker-Jordan is 100 Days in Appalachia’s Contributing Editor for Community Engagement. Support his work and our continued coverage of politics in the region by donating here.

Share your feedback and thoughts with Skylar directly at [email protected].