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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texas student activists fight to protect diversity programs

During this year’s legislative session, Texas university students clashed with lawmakers over a proposal to ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs on campus. Lawmakers passed the ban — but the fight isn’t over just yet.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — At an office building in downtown Austin in August, members of the University of Texas Board of Regents held a routine meeting to discuss their work managing the largest public university system in the state.

Just as the board went into an executive session, nearly a dozen UT students filed onto the second floor and began to protest.

The students demanded the university not make cuts to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs on all 13 UT-run campuses, after the Republican-controlled Texas legislature this year passed a ban requiring just that.

“When DEI is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” the students chanted.

Among those in attendance that day was Seraphine, a second-year civil engineering student at the University of Texas in Arlington who asked to only use their first name.

“I chose UT-Arlington because of its fantastic diversity,” Seraphine told UT administrators. During orientation, recruiters had even “boasted about being one of the most diverse schools in Texas.” 

Now, Seraphine said, diversity at UT-Arlington was “under attack” and there was “nothing but silence from our administrators.” The sophomore had traveled three hours from their Arlington campus to urge the UT board of regents to stand with students and protect against cuts to DEI.

Confrontations like the one at the UT regents’ meeting have marked a new chapter in the fight to preserve DEI at public colleges and universities in Republican-led states across the country.

In Texas — a hard-right but rapidly growing state where at last count more than a million students actively attend public higher-ed institutions — the fight over such diversity programs has been particularly contentious.  

During this year’s legislative session, student activists fought unsuccessfully with lawmakers to save DEI at Texas campuses. But now student activists have taken their fight to the college level, calling on school administrators not to eliminate the popular programs.

This controversy dates back to at least January, when Republican lawmakers in the state began making it clear that they wanted to reshape higher education — including by cutting programs focused on student equity.

In February, before the 2023 legislative session even began, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office directed state agencies and public universities to cease the implementation of DEI practices in the hiring of employees. The directive caused many universities to put diversity programs on ice or even start rolling them back entirely. 

Those efforts heated up further when the 2023 Texas legislative session began in March. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican and vocal culture warrior, listed banning DEI, eliminating tenure and prohibiting the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” as top legislative priorities. 

”Looney Marxist” professors, he said on X (formerly Twitter), wanted to “poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory” and should be held accountable. He argued DEI was part of a “divisive” agenda pushed by the “woke left” and told Fox News that the end goal was to “destroy America.”

This rhetoric soon led to actual legislation, including in the form of Senate Bill 17. The bill prohibits public institutions in Texas from maintaining DEI offices or requiring faculty to take diversity training. 

Texas state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, speaks in favor of a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

In addition to SB 17, lawmakers attached limitations to the state’s general appropriations bill, barring universities from using funds for DEI-related programs, training or hiring initiatives. State auditors are tasked with policing universities and can reduce funding for those found not in compliance.

Outside the halls of government and academia, Texans remain divided on whether DEI is appropriate in higher education. A June poll showed that 49% of Texans "strongly” or “somewhat” support the ban, while 34% oppose it and 16% either did not know or had no opinion on the matter.

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One group that has remained vocally opposed to such bans, though, are students themselves. As SB 17 worked its way through the legislature, students were there for every hours-long and/or late-night committee meeting, pleading with lawmakers not to support the bill. 

Now, with SB 17 not only passed but slated to take effect in January, student activists are looking inward towards the university administrators tasked with complying with the law. The protest at the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting marked the first act in this change of strategy. 

Two student groups — Texas Students for DEI and the UT chapter of Students for a Democratic Society — have emerged as central opponents to the anti-DEI rhetoric pushed by Texas Republican leaders. In 2020, UT alum Jake Holtzman founded the chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Texas’ flagship campus in Austin with the goal of advancing progressive causes on campus. 

In a phone interview with Courthouse News in October, Holtzman said he and other activists have begun shifting their focus from opposing legislation in the capitol to calling on university leaders to defend the dearly held programs. 

University officials might argue they have no choice but to cut DEI — but “I’m sure there are workarounds,” Holtzman said. By demonstrating at the UT board of regents’ meeting and across UT campuses, he said protesters wanted to “make sure the administration hears us and hears that students are demanding no cuts to these programs.”

Members of Texas Students for DEI echoed these sentiments as well. Samuel Jefferson and Izabella De La Garza joined the organization earlier this year. Like Holtzman, the pair so strongly support DEI programs that they’ve continued their activism even after graduating.

For Jefferson, who graduated this spring before going on to work at the UT School of Law, his belief in the importance of diversity was solidified through watching the experiences of father, Wallace B. Jefferson — a former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice and the first-ever Black person to serve on the state’s highest civil court. 

“Seeing faces and people that look like you in different positions of power,” Jefferson said, “can really reinforce and help students feel that they can attain more.”

De La Garza studied government and Mexican-American and Latino studies. Growing up in San Antonio, she said she never marginalized. 

That changed after she moved to Austin for college, where she says she saw first hand how inaccessible and unrepresentative institutions of higher learning and government can be for non-white citizens.

De La Garza credits UT’s Multicultural Engagement Center with easing her transition into university. She said she was “welcomed with open arms” by the center, which is tied to the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

“The Multicultural Engagement Center is so necessary, especially at a place like UT or any predominantly white institution,” De La Garza said. “Sometimes people say things or do things, or you experience things, that make you uncomfortable.”

The Main Building at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo courtesy of Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The Multicultural Engagement Center (MEC) acts as a hub for diversity programs on the UT campus. It provides resources to students who belong to marginalized communities, as well as educational courses with the aim of fostering an inclusive campus environment. 

Now, after SB 17, the center faces the prospect of being drastically rolled back or closed altogether. Texas Students for DEI has taken this threat seriously and has focused its efforts on making sure student voices are heard by school administrators.

Were UT’s Multicultural Resource Center to close, it could mean less resources for student groups dedicated to representing marginalized students. Among those groups is one called the Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency, which maintains an office at the center. 

In an interview, Miguel Anderson, the organization’s co-director of operations, said that while he is hopeful the MEC will still exist even after SB 17 takes effect, he knows that it will not be able to serve the same functions as it does today. The law could prevent groups like Anderson’s from receiving university sponsorship or even continuing to have a home base on public campuses like UT’s. 

Faced with these high stakes, Anderson nonetheless urged queer students of color on campus to “not worry.”

“Work is being done. Students are protesting and protecting these spaces,” Anderson said. “That is never going to go away, and we are going to make space for you with wellness, inclusivity and community in mind.”

At other public universities in Texas, though, DEI offices are indeed already going away.

Over the summer, news broke that the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Resource Center, which had provided a safe space for queer students, would be closing. In response, Rice University’s LGBTQ support office began extending honorary memberships to public university students like those at UH.

As the battle continues over the future of DEI in Texas, state university students are staying mobilized. At the University of Texas, Texas Students for DEI have held so-called “teach-in” sessions to inform others about the implications of SB 17 and encourage classmates to speak up. 

The protests, demonstrations and organizing have also continued. At the UT student center last week, a dozen students gathered to hear from fellow student-activist Laura Rodriguez about her experience protesting state anti-DEI legislation — this time in Florida.

Part of the so-called “Tampa 5,” Rodriguez is one of five students facing felony charges stemming from a pro-DEI protest at the University of South Florida in March. But while the arrests left students shaken, they’ve also helped inspire solidarity among university students from across the country amid a wave of anti-DEI initiatives.

Rodriguez’s presence on the UT-Austin campus was part of a speaking tour put on by Students for a Democratic Society, the progressive university group of which she is a member. Despite facing up to 10 years in prison, she urged her Texas counterparts to remain active and continue fighting for campus diversity.

“You see what is happening. You see these laws that are coming down from Greg Abbott,” she said. “You need to stand up now, join organizations like Students for a Democratic Society and share in solidarity.”

Rodriguez ended her speech with a call to action — and a warning. “It is happening in Florida,” she said of efforts to end campus DEI, and “it is going to happen here.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Politics

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