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Are public universities doing enough to comply with Texas’ DEI ban? Lawmakers will decide.

Demonstrators protest DEI-related staff firings at UT Austin on April 29.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Demonstrators protest DEI-related staff firings at UT Austin on April 29.

Texas lawmakers got an update Tuesday on the steps higher education leaders are taking to implement a state law that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices at public universities and colleges. The Republican-backed Senate Bill 17 took effect in January.

The Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education also heard testimony on free speech and concerns about antisemitism on college campuses.

"The topics we're covering today are timely and get to the fundamentals of what we expect from our higher education institutions," Committee Chair Brandon Creighton said.

The panel's meeting comes less than two months after Creighton (R-Conroe) asked chancellors of seven public university systems, including the University of Texas System, to provide information about their efforts to dismantle DEI programs to comply with the law he authored.

“While I am encouraged with the progress I have seen from many institutions of higher education in implementing SB 17, I am deeply concerned with the possibility that many institutions may choose to merely rename their offices or employees titles,” he wrote in his March 26 letter. “This letter should serve as notice that this practice is unacceptable.”

The Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education holds a hearing on May 14, 2024 on how universities and colleges are complying with a law banning DEI programs and offices at public higher education institutions.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
The Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education holds a hearing on May 14, 2024 on how universities and colleges are complying with a law banning DEI programs and offices at public higher education institutions.

A week after the letter went out, UT Austin President Jay Hartzell announced additional changes at the flagship institution, which had already taken steps to comply with SB 17. The changes included closing the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and laying off about 50 people who had previously worked on DEI initiatives. Groups such as the American Association of University Professors at UT Austin called the latter move unnecessary.

Hartzell told the UT Faculty Council in April that he believed UT Austin was in compliance with the law when it took effect but that others disagreed.

"There are those who are spending their days looking for cases where they think we're not complying, and we've addressed those as they've come about," he said.

Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, a group of UT Austin students, faculty and staff who oppose SB 17 marched from the UT Tower to the Capitol to speak out against the law and how it has affected campus.

UT Austin student Maggie DiSanza said she marched in solidarity with faculty at Texas’ public universities who have been “unjustly fired because of overcompliance with SB 17.”

“One of the biggest reasons that we’re here today is because SB 17 was written in such a vague way that compliance looks very different from campus to campus,” said DiSanza, a member of the progressive youth civic group Texas Rising. “At UT, we’ve seen an all-out purge of DEI programs.”

Laysha Gonzalez, a third-year UT student, said the march felt like the right place to be.

“I’m first generation Mexican American. I’m the first in my family — and I mean I have a 94-year-old grandmother — and I’m the first in my family to attend a university in the U.S.,” she said. “I get emotional just thinking about it."

Gonzalez said the law feels like an attack on students like herself.

She added DEI programs benefit all students, and she is concerned about future classes who will not have access to the same resources and opportunities she did.

“We all really need to wake up and really think about the future. You really have to realize and remember what being a Texan means and that means Texans that look all different ways,” she said. “If we want to change the world, it has to be with people that are representative of each person in the world.”

In addition to university compliance with SB 17, the higher education subcommittee also heard testimony on free speech and antisemitism on college campuses.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican lawmakers have repeatedly criticized pro-Palestinian protests as antisemitic and praised UT Austin’s hardline response to demonstrations, which included calling in state troopers. Police arrested nearly 140 people during protests on campus. Law enforcement has also arrested pro-Palestinian demonstrators at UT Dallas and the University of Houston.

In contrast, some UT Austin students have said the university has not responded adequately to concerns about Islamophobia and discrimination against Palestinian and Arab students. Last month, for example, a Muslim UT Austin student was attacked by three men yelling Islamophobic phrases.

In response to that incident, the university said in a statement it was “committed to the safety and well-being of every member of our University community and has no tolerance for violence or other hateful actions against any of our community members, including those in our Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab communities.”

Compliance with DEI ban

Creighton said before SB 17 took effect in Texas, DEI programs on college campuses had grown "out of control, replacing merit with equity for some."

"In the past, these groups got what they wanted by shouting loud enough, leading universities to allocate tens of millions of dollars, reshaping hiring and promotions, and establishing hundreds of committees and DEI offices to please them," he said.

Creighton said Texas can come up with other ways to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who attend college.

"No amount of DEI trainings that are mandatory, workshops or political oaths that have to be signed in order to apply for a job will open up opportunities for underserved students in Texas," he said.

State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pushed back, saying he thinks DEI opponents have taken too narrow a view of who it benefits.

"To frame DEI just based on race alone, I think is wrong," he said. "It not only deals with issues of race and gender but geographic location, veteran status, disability status, etc."

West said it is going to be vital to understand how SB 17 impacts student success on college campuses, and he hopes it's not "disastrous."

The law does require public universities and colleges to work with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to produce a biennial study on the impact of implementing the measure. The institutions will be tracking application, acceptance, retention and graduation rates, for example, and the data must be broken down by race, ethnicity and sex.

University of Texas System Chancellor J.B. Milliken told senators about the changes the institution has made to comply with the law so far.

"I believe our board, our system administrative leadership and our presidents and their administrative teams have undertaken the significant work of executing many changes in a very large operation in good faith and successfully," he said.

Milliken said the UT System has closed 21 DEI offices at its institutions, eliminated 311 full-time and part-time positions that previously focused on DEI and cancelled 681 contracts, programs and trainings. As a result of these changes, he said, the UT System estimates more than $25 million will be saved or reallocated to "other university mission-related purposes."

Milliken said although DEI programs have been dismantled, UT System institutions are still committed to serving all students.

"Our priorities continue to be focused on expanding access, on increasing affordability and in putting in place the resources that all of our students need, not only to graduate, but to launch strong careers aligned with in-demand jobs and good earning opportunities," he said.

West asked Milliken whether DEI programs had helped increase graduation rates for underrepresented student groups.

"I think you would be the first to tell me that the programs we had in place had not been adequately doing what we hoped they would do in terms of increasing enrollments and increasing graduation rates," Milliken said.

But when West pressed him on whether there was at least some increase in graduation rates because of DEI programs, Milliken said he wasn't sure any increases were a result of the programs.

Other university leaders, including the heads of the Texas A&M University System and University of Houston System, also testified.

During public testimony, opponents of SB 17 told senators about the negative impact of the law and its unintended consequences.

Andrea Gore, a professor in the UT College of Pharmacy, said the DEI ban is going to impact the university's ability to get research dollars.

"Here's why SB 17 needs to be amended: First, research proposals to biomedical funding agencies require a diversity statement," said Gore, who has brought $17 million in grants to UT Austin. "There is simply no way of getting around these federal requirements."

Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua testified that SB 17 is going to hurt efforts to develop a diverse, well-rounded workforce.

"Legislation like SB 17 and banning of DEI policies at higher education [institutions] will create a climate that is hostile and unwelcoming," he said. "It is detrimental to our economic growth."

Alicia Moreno, who lost her job at UT Austin because of efforts to comply with SB 17, echoed that concern. She said shuttering programs and pulling funding from student organizations has had major consequences.

"This bill has caused our students to feel unwanted and unsupported," she said, "and it has taken away...programs and necessary critical services."

Moreno also said UT Austin has discontinued initiatives that did not run afoul of SB 17, such as the Monarch program, which supported undocumented students.

"It was claimed by UT Legal that we did race-based programming, which is completely false," she said. "UT Legal told me they made their decision by only looking at our Instagram page."

Moreno said that raises concerns about how the university determined which programs did not comply with SB 17.

"I ask that you all provide further clarification on what it really is that you need to be compliant with SB 17 and to hold institutions accountable from this overreach of this bill," she said.

Free speech, antisemitism and pro-Palestinian protests

While the bulk of invited testimony focused on compliance with SB 17, the first hour of the hearing was devoted to a discussion about free speech and antisemitism on college campuses.

Creighton characterized pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses across the U.S. as antisemitic. He praised UT System and UT Austin leaders for their response to the demonstrations.

"I respect everyone's right to protest on campus when they follow the rules," he said. "When they incite and encourage danger and/or harm to others, Texas students and all Texans and faculty must be kept safe."

Senators heard invited testimony from several people, including Levi Fox, a member of Longhorn Students for Israel.

He said he and some other Jewish students felt threatened by the protests at UT Austin, adding that a student and professor made antisemitic comments to him.

"Universities everywhere are places for learning, growth and experiences," he said. "Recently we've seen our nation's most prestigious universities become breeding grounds for hate, misinformation and isolation."

Fox said he has seen Jewish students remove symbols of their faith because they're concerned about being targeted.

"I've seen firsthand, Jewish students taking off yarmulkes, or hiding their Stars of David that they hang around their neck," he said.

Courtney Toretto, a policy director with the Anti-Defamation League, was also invited to testify. She said the group has seen an unprecedented spike in antisemitic incidents on college campuses since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed about 1,200 people. In the months since, Israel's military has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza.

"Over the past few weeks, we've watched in dismay as campus life at universities, including UT Austin and Dallas, has been upended by protests that have too often devolved into hateful, antisemitic rhetoric," she said.

Courtney Toretto, with the Anti-Defamation League discusses the rise in antisemitism on college campuses during a Texas Senate hearing on May 14, 2024.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Courtney Toretto, with the Anti-Defamation League discusses the rise in antisemitism on college campuses during a Texas Senate hearing on May 14, 2024.

But other people who spoke during public testimony pushed back on the idea that pro-Palestinian protests are antisemitic.

Julia Heilrayne said the April 24 protest at UT Austin was meant to be peaceful.

"It was never planned to be, nor did it become the antisemitic event that it has been made out to be," she said.

Heilrayne, who said she has Jewish ancestry, criticized university leaders' decision to call in state troopers.

"What happened on campus was a clear violation of their rights as students attending a public university," she said.

She added state troopers arrested her sister, knocking her to the ground and "aggressively" twisting her arms.

Dr. Aman Odeh, a pediatrician who recently volunteered in Gaza, said lawmakers should not lose sight of why students are protesting.

"When I heard the testimonies this morning there was not a mention of why these students are speaking up," she said. "I was talking to a nurse [in Gaza] about how she lost her 1-year-old to a blast explosion. She did not get to say goodbye."

Odeh added protecting the right to free speech is vital.

"By ensuring our institutions of higher learning remain spaces of open dialogue, critical thinking and intellectual diversity, we uphold the very essence of democracy," she said. "Let us stand together in defense of free speech and ensure that future generations inherit a society where their voices are heard."

Creighton said in a statement following the hearing that it "will lay the groundwork for important legislation that I will work to advance in the 89th legislative session."

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Becky Fogel