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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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GOP-backed bill banning college diversity programs advances in Texas Senate

Republican state senators are pushing three bills, backed by staunch conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, that would restrict public universities' ability to offer tenure, consider diversity in hiring or discuss topics relating to race.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — In the early morning hours on Friday, just after 12:20 a.m., the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education advanced a bill banning the use of diversity programs and initiatives at public universities. 

The committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe, authored Senate Bill 17. In his explanation of the bill, Creighton told his fellow lawmakers and a crowded committee room of people waiting to testify that Texas is a diverse state and institutions of higher education should reflect that, but the use of diversity, equity and inclusion - commonly referred to as DEI - programs do not achieve that goal.

“They have often worked against the true goal of diversity and equality, only furthering divide and creating a sometimes chilling effect on open dialogue,” said Creighton. 

DEI is not a single policy or mandate. Rather it is a collection of initiatives that seek to foster diversity and inclusivity in places that have historically discriminated against specific groups. Many such initiatives are meant to help racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people.

Many colleges and universities have created DEI offices that are tasked with helping aid students and promote the values of campus diversity through campus programs. 

Creighton said his bill would scrap mandatory diversity training of university staff as well as DEI offices and officers. The Republican said that if the bill becomes law, universities would still be obligated to follow state and federal anti-discrimination statutes.  

He said the legislation will lead to more fairness in the hiring process of university faculty, focusing on merit and not “political litmus tests.”

Antonio Ingram, associate counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in an interview that the bill is troubling because DEI initiatives were adopted to give people who were discriminated against by the state equal treatment in the workplace.

“I think about the University of Texas at Austin, it was founded in the 1800s but did not let Black students in until the 1950s,” said Ingram. “So I think we need to remember that these institutions were not founded to be inclusive. They were not founded to be welcoming to every demographic that currently exists in the state in a way that is increasingly growing.”

Of the 49 people who testified in person to the committee late Thursday night, only five spoke in favor of the bill. Four of them were invited to speak by lawmakers.

Many of those who spoke against SB 17 were students of color currently attending a public university in Texas. Several professors also testified. Many spoke about how the bill may negatively the ability of public universities to attract top scholars to teach in Texas. Moreover, they held that the issues with DEI cited by Creighton did not exist on campuses today.   

SB 17 comes as a follow-up to action taken by Republican Governor Greg Abbott earlier this year. On Feb. 6, Abbott’s chief of staff, Gardner Pate, sent a letter to state agencies and public university leaders calling on them to cease using DEI policies.

Since the governor’s office sent the letters, many of Texas’ most notable universities, including Texas A&M University, the University of Texas System and Texas Tech University have begun reviewing or rolling back such policies.

SB 17 is not the only higher education-related bill working its way through the Texas Senate.

Senate Bill 16, filed by Republican Bryan Hughes of Mineola, seeks to restrict the teaching of so-called critical race theory in higher education. According to the bill's language, students may not be compelled from adopting the belief that any race, sex or political belief is superior to any other. 

In addition, Senate Bill 18 follows up on a promise made by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last year to ban tenure after faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin voted in favor of a resolution affirming their commitment to academic freedom and the teaching of topics related to race and gender. 

Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacy at UT and author of the resolution, testified against SB 18 last week during a committee meeting. Gore told lawmakers that tenure, which guarantees a professor's employment at an institution, not only protects the academic freedom of professors but allows them to work on cutting-edge research that takes years to complete.

“It took years of research and failed experiments and eventually successes to get to where I am today and tenure allowed me to take the kind of risks needed to do the cutting-edge research and make discoveries to change our understanding of the developing brain,” Gore told the committee.

The bill would prohibit public universities from further granting tenure to staff. In place of tenure, institutions would be required to adhere to compensation and contract standards set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees all public universities in the state. 

Creighton, who authored SB 18, said that he has seen the brand of Texas public universities harmed by “vocal and fringe tenured faculty.” Moreover, the senator argues the use of tenure leads to a decrease in the quality of teaching and research among those who have it.   

The American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, published an analysis of all three bills and how they might impact higher education in Texas. 

“These bills would have the direct effect of removing tenure protections from faculty, closing avenues of legitimate scholarly inquiry and debate that politicians wish closed, and ending efforts to pursue equity and diversity in institutions of higher education,” the analysis states. “In addition, these bills and the effort to pass them would have a pervasive chilling effect on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on college and university campuses.”

SB 16 has been reported out of committee and may be voted on by the full Senate as early as next Tuesday. As for SB 17 and SB 18, they now await approval from the Senate Education Committee before being sent to the full chamber.

All three bills have support among Senate Republicans while Democrats are seemingly united in their opposition to them.

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