Utah law aimed at diversity programs puts future of university 'affinity celebrations' in doubt

The LatinX Grad Ceremony at Weber State University on April 22, 2023. This year's incarnation, Celebración de Mariposas, is scheduled for Saturday.

The LatinX Grad Ceremony at Weber State University on April 22, 2023. This year's incarnation, Celebración de Mariposas, is scheduled for Saturday. (Weber State University)

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SALT LAKE CITY — As graduation season commences, different segments within some of Utah's university communities — Latinos, LGBTQ students, Pacific Islanders and others — are planning to mark the end of their undergraduate years with their own celebrations.

Looking to 2025, though, such events could be in jeopardy or face change due to a bill passed by Utah lawmakers this year, requiring an overhaul of diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Utah's public universities.

The varied events at the University of Utah, Weber State University and Utah State University — complementary to commencement and convocation ceremonies — aren't all based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, says one university official. Over the years, "we've seen celebrations among all kinds of communities — veterans, athletes, various clubs and even departments. Ultimately, it's a way for students to keep the festivities going a little longer among their closest colleagues and loved ones," said Bryan Magaña, spokesman for Weber State University.

At any rate, HB261 has cast a shadow on the future of affinity celebrations, as they're known, the events typically geared to racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. For the 2024 graduation season, they can proceed, said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Geoffrey Landward, who's helping craft guidelines to help Utah's universities adjust to the provisions of HB261. Beyond that, things aren't so clear.

"That's something that we're dealing with right now," said Landward.

University of Utah spokeswoman Rebecca Walsh offered a similar take. "We're working with our peer institutions and the (Utah System of Higher Education) to understand the implications of HB261 on these celebrations next year," she said.

The Republican majority in the Utah Legislature overwhelmingly approved HB261. The measure, advocates say, aims to broaden the programming offered under diversity initiatives — help for first-generation students and those coming from lower lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for instance — to all in need, not just those of certain racial or ethnic groups. Its full reach is still focus of review — Utah's universities are to implement changes per HB261 by July 1 — but it appears affinity celebrations could also be impacted.

The bill's sponsors, Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, and Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, didn't respond to queries seeking comment. But as conservatives have increasingly targeted diversity, equity and inclusion programs, affinity celebrations have come under fire by some critics as a form of segregation.

"These celebrations allow students to separate themselves from each other based on their racial and ethnic identities and then celebrate graduation with their own kind. I'm old enough to remember when this was called 'segregation,'" Mike Rowe, a TV host and producer, wrote in a blog post earlier this month.

The University of Texas announced in January that affinity celebrations would no longer get funding per a strict new state law targeting diversity programming at Texas' public universities, according to the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper. Texas law cuts funding for all diversity programs.

On the flip side, Utah university officials and announcements for the varied affinity events emphasize the celebrations are open to all — though, preregistration is sometimes required. They are meant to be celebratory, not exclusionary.

"Weber State University has a strong Hispanic and Latino community with many of our graduates growing up in the surrounding neighborhoods. This event seeks to continue inspiring future generations of youth that students from varied ethnic backgrounds do succeed in college," reads the online description for the Celebración de Mariposas, or Butterfly Celebration, which is geared for the Latino community. The celebration is set for Saturday, and similar incarnations have been held in years past at Weber State.

Utah State University is holding a Latinx Graduation Celebration on May 1 and has organized such events for the Latino community since 2019. University spokeswoman Amanda DeRito noted that varied student groups and clubs hold their own celebrations for graduating students and emphasized they are distinct from formal graduation ceremonies.

"As with all events, anyone is welcome to come and celebrate, and the events are advertised as such," DeRito said.

Both the U. and Weber State are holding "lavender" graduation celebrations, meant to honor graduates from the LGBTQ community. "Lavender Graduation is an annual ceremony conducted on numerous campuses to honor graduating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic and ally students," reads an online announcement for the planned ceremony at the U.

A U. article ahead of the 2023 lavender celebration noted the "many challenges from various sources" that LGBTQ students can face through their lives. "The celebration and visibility – not erasure – of LGBTQ people in our spaces are needed," Harry Hawkins, director of the U.'s LGBT Resource Center, said in the article.

Weber State is also planning separate graduation celebrations geared to the Pacific Islander, Asian, Black and Native American communities. "Among the groups who host these events, we've seen the intent to complement Weber State's official commencement, not replace it — and they're open to everyone participating or attending," Magaña said.

Apart from any celebrations geared to individual segments of the university community, the U. is hosting an event, Celebrating U Completely, that aims to serve as "an illustration of inclusivity and recognition," honoring all graduating students and their distinct backgrounds. "Celebrating U Completely is all about embracing and honoring everything that makes us who we are, from our backgrounds to our stories, and everything in between," reads a description of the event.

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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