Texas governor signs ban on college diversity programs into law | Courthouse News Service
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Texas governor signs ban on college diversity programs into law

Following significant debate, a bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs and a bill regulating tenure were signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott has signed two bills into law that ban public colleges and universities from maintaining diversity programs and place regulations on the practice of tenure. 

News of Abbott’s signing of the bills came late Wednesday afternoon from the author, state Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe. In a news release, Creighton said that the bills will ensure state institutions will be “better equipped to prepare the next generation of leaders.”

Firstly, Senate Bill 17 bans colleges and universities from maintaining an office of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and mandating staff to take diversity training or provide statements describing their commitment to diversity. 

“With this bold, forward-thinking legislation to eliminate DEI programs, Texas is leading the nation, and ensuring our campuses return to focusing on the strength of diversity and promoting a merit-based approach where individuals are judged on their qualifications, skills, and contributions,” Creighton said in the release.

Creighton often criticized DEI programs as being harmful to free speech on campus and hampering diversity in the recruiting students and faculty.

Under the legislation, state auditors must ensure institutions do not use state funds for such programs. If an auditor finds that an institution is out of compliance, the institution will have 180 days to correct the violation or face becoming ineligible to receive funding increases.  

Academic and the corporate world have adopted DEI programs and policies to promote fair and equal treatment of people in the workforce and address historical discrimination of certain groups. While discussions of DEI often center on creating an inclusive environment for racial minorities and people who identify as LGBTQ, these programs also target helping veterans and people with disabilities.

While SB 17 prohibits public institutions from implementing DEI programs and policies, they still must adhere to all state and federal non-discrimination laws.

SB 17 was one of the most hotly debated bills introduced during the legislative session, which ended on May 29. Many Black lawmakers spoke against the bill, saying it would negatively impact students of color on campuses across the state.

Responding to the signing of the two bills, state Representative Ron Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, said in a statement that SB 17 will stifle discussion of race, gender and social justice, "[perpetuating a cycle of ignorance and discrimination." Reynolds serves as the chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. 

"This afternoon, Texas took two massive steps back in the realm of higher education in the form of these two pieces of legislation," Reynolds said. "SB 17 ... sends a distressing message that Texas, a state which has the largest population of African Americans, is unwilling to confront systemic inequities and provide an inclusive learning environment for all students."

“It truly breaks my heart that … in 2023 that we are going backward,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, during a floor debate on the bill. “Diversity, equity and inclusion programs are designed so that they could address those inequities that existed for centuries. It is just recently that we started to make some marginal progress because of these very initiatives.”

Brian Evans, vice president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, said in a news release that the bill will negatively impact colleges' and universities' ability to apply for and receive grants and accreditation.

The bill strictly allows institutions to provide statements to accreditation agencies and prospective grantors highlighting work in serving students who are low-income, from an underserved community or are first-generation college students. A less restrictive version of the bill would have allowed institutions to maintain DEI offices and programs to obtain grants and accreditation, but a conference committee removed those provisions.

“Because of the critical role grants play in supporting thousands of personnel, and in training the next generation of workers with advanced skills, we believe that SB 17 will prove devastating to the economy, and to building the highly trained workforce of Texas,” Evans said. “The state should prepare for a loss of billions of dollars in research and programmatic grants.”

Also signed into law by Governor Abbott was Senate Bill 18, which codifies the practice of tenure into law. The bill requires the governing board of every institution to adopt policies regarding its practice of granting tenure and the reasons why a professor may have their tenure revoked. 

“Guaranteed, lifetime employment is now a thing of the past at Texas public colleges and universities,” Creighton said. “The reforms in SB 18 will modernize the costly and antiquated tenure system, opening up a new era of competition and performance in Texas higher education.”

As a practice, tenure has been utilized in higher education to protect the academic freedom of faculty. The goal of tenure, according to the AAUP, is to ensure professors may conduct research and speak freely without being retaliated against by leaders at the university.

A professor may have their tenure revoked for committing any of the eight violations outlined in the bill. They include being deemed professionally incompetent, failing to perform duties, failing to complete post-tenure professional development, engaging in conduct deemed “​​morally turpitude,” violating campus rules or committing crimes, engaging in unprofessional conduct and/or falsifying academic credentials.

SB 18 requires institutions to provide professors facing tenure revocation or dismissal a chance to review the allegations against them and an opportunity to respond to them before an administrator. The administrator will consider the faculty member’s response and then make a final determination.

Similar to SB 17, Texas House proceedings tempered SB 18. The Senate-passed version of the bill constituted an outright ban on tenure at Texas public colleges and universities. While Brian Evans with the AAUP believes the bill is unnecessary, he is thankful for the changes made.

The shining of SB 17 and SB 18 marks the culmination of a promise made by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last year to ban tenure after faculty at the University of Texas at Austin adopted a resolution affirming their commitment to academic freedom.

Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Texas is the latest state to pass measures affecting higher education. Earlier this year, Florida Governor and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law prohibiting public institutions from using state and federal funds on DEI programs. 

The first bill to take effect is SB 18, on Sept. 1. SB 17 will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

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