AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Following intense debates, the Texas House of Representatives on Monday gave final approval to a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public colleges and universities in the state and initial approval to a bill regulating tenure in the state.
If enacted into law, Senate Bill 17 would prohibit public institutions from having diversity, equity and inclusion, also known as DEI, offices or programs. The bill is a priority measure for conservative lawmakers who believe diversity programs have hurt higher education in the state.
“Texas is one of the most diverse states in the country, and we all agree that diversity contributes to our strength and resiliency,” said the bill's House sponsor Representative John Kuempel, R-Seguin, during a debate on the bill last Friday. “There's virtually no evidence from any Texas college or university that DEI programs have closed the gap in terms of minority student outcomes, minority recruitment or faculty hiring.”
If signed into law, governing boards overseeing colleges and universities will be tasked with ensuring that colleges do not violate the ban. Institutions found to have violated the law would have 180 days to make a correction or risk being excluded from “funding increases, institutional enhancements or exceptional items,” according to the proposal.
Diversity, equity and inclusion programs and policies have been long used to address the historical exclusion of racial and religious minorities, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community in higher education and the corporate world. Such programs have also been used to provide aid to veterans and people with low incomes.
“It truly breaks my heart that … in 2023 that we are going backward,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, Texas. “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.”
Reynolds serves as chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and spoke out earlier this year against Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s efforts to order state agencies and universities to cease implementation of DEI programs, which the state's leader says violate federal law.
Critics of the bill have argued that banning DEI programs would shut institutions out from receiving grant funding and accreditation.
The bill will allow colleges and universities to submit statements to accrediting agencies and grantors that “highlights the institution's work in supporting first-generation college students, low-income students or underserved student populations.”
Additionally, SB 17 has raised concerns that eliminating DEI programs will hinder an institution's ability to attract and retain students and staff. In a compromise with Democrats, Kuempel authored an amendment requiring the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees public institutions in the state, to conduct an annual study as to the implementation of the statute and its impact on recruitment, retention and other performance data.
The Texas House also gave initial approval to Senate Bill 18, which sets limitations and guidelines on how university professors may be granted or revoked tenure.
Representative Kuempel also acted as the sponsor for SB 18 in the House. During his explanation of the bill, the Republican said it “will provide accountability while maintaining an environment that is conducive to recruiting and retaining the best faculty and researchers in the state and nation.”
Under the legislation, an institution’s governing board will be required to adopt policies regarding tenure programs. Every institution would have to adopt a set of eight reasons why a professor may have his or her tenure revoked. Such policies include professional incompetence, being convicted of a crime and/or engaging “in conduct involving moral turpitude.” Additionally, SB 18 would enshrine tenure review and termination processes into law.
Senate Bills 17 and 18 received significant overhauls in the House. The Senate-passed version of SB 17 acted as a blanket ban on DEI offices, programs and mandated diversity training. Senate Bill 18 would have banned tenure entirely in its original state.
Critics of the legislation welcomed the changes but remained firm in their opposition.
Antonio Ingram, associate counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in an interview that despite the changes to SB 17 and 18, both bills still pose harm to institutions of higher education.
"Even though the current version [of SB 18] will no longer wholesale abolish tenure going forward, the current version sort of weakens it to the point where it becomes tenure in name only," said Ingram.
As for how SB 17 will affect the college experience for future students, Ingram believes that students will be at a disadvantage without DEI initiatives.
"It's about feeling welcome. I think DEI is not only measured by recruitment is measured by retention. It is how many students of color come in wanting to stay, who feel safe enough to graduate in environments that still may not look like them."
If the Senate does not concur with the House's version of the bills, they will be sent to conference committees, where lawmakers must decide what provisions will stay and which will be cut from the legislation.
Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has made banning tenure, DEI and critical race theory in public colleges and universities a priority for the 2023 legislative session.
Texas is not the only state to scrutinize tenure and DEI programs. Last week, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that prohibits public institutions from using state and federal funds on such programs.
During a news conference, DeSantis said that “DEI has basically been used as a veneer to impose an ideological agenda.”
Time is running out for Texas lawmakers to further consider these and other bills. The legislative session is set to end on May 29. If not passed, the governor may call lawmakers back for a special session. However, Abbott has not yet said he would do so if the bills did not pass.
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