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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 are getting 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 is also hearing 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 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 is also hearing 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.”

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.