Friday, March 17, 2023

Universities navigate diversity as Abbott and GOP target programs

We should very much worry not just about the taking down of DEI programs and initiatives, but also how this is getting done at the moment. Specifically, anti-DEI Rider #186, calling for a Prohibition of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Practices, was tagged onto the House Appropriations hearing on the Texas budget. What followed yesterday on Thursday morning of March 16 in the House Appropriations Committee was a vote to keep this anti-DEI Rider in the higher education appropriations bill, despite appeals by mostly black and brown legislators to take it out. Nevermind that these anti-DEI bills haven’t yet been vetted by their referred committee. On Facebook, I expressed the following:

"Defunding DEI programs in higher education by the Appropriations Committee is an abuse of the process and the public trust. It simply should not have been tagged on to begin with, particularly considering that the implications of this rider on the 1.5M students in Texas higher education are so incredibly vast. It is therefore woefully irresponsible to seek to railroad the process in this way.

My sense of things is that all of this will come back to a floor vote in the Texas house when the appropriations bill itself is ready to be considered."

I added the following with respect to strategy.

"The only thing that occurs to me right now is all of us reaching out to Chairman Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Galveston) to pull Rider #186 from the appropriations bill and give it a proper hearing in the Higher Education Committee in the Texas House.

A law like this, without proper vetting, that is of such massive consequence—impacting 1.5 million college students across the state—is already, in its current formulation, feeling like root shock. Moreover, what we all saw happen today was an affront both to democracy and standards of human decency and regard that the great majority of Texans share. And I’m not referring to how much “civility” they demonstrated, but rather to their hubris, coupled with their flagrant disregard for the process. Rep. Bonnen's office phone number is 512-463-0729."

-Angela Valenzuela

The state's flagship universities are vowing to keep pursuing diversity even as Republicans force them to step away from programs that were helping them.


Students walk through The University of Texas at Austin.

Ashley Landis, Special Contributor / Ashley Landis

As Republicans attack diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses, the state’s flagship universities are doing everything they can to assure future students and faculty that they are still committed to diversity while also placating GOP leaders.

Over the last two months, top Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have launched an all-out assault on the programs, known as DEI, at public colleges. While universities point to big diversity gains over the last five years, in part because of their DEI efforts, Abbott has called the practices potentially discriminatory, and some state legislators have vowed to cut college funding in retaliation.

College presidents have responded by appealing to politicians who hold the fate of the budgets in their hands, while also trying to assure students and faculty that they are not retreating from efforts to be more representative of what the state’s population looks like.

“We’re all looking for ways to have a diverse, vibrant campus that works for all our students, all of our community, and do that in a way with excellence,” the University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell told Hearst Newspapers this week, without directly talking about the anti-DEI campaign.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said his system is more committed than ever to getting into diverse communities and neighborhoods to recruit both students and faculty.

But the University of Texas System has already paused new DEI programs and vowed to review all its existing efforts after Abbott sent warning letters to all public colleges on the issue. The Texas A&M University System also announced last month that it was banning requirements for jobs or admissions candidates to submit DEI statements as part of their applications.

The rollback couldn’t be happening at a worse time, according to state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. Diversity programs have been a big reason why colleges have seen improvements in their attempts to address systemic racial barriers, he said. West worries that the anti-DEI campaign will drive students from Black and Hispanic families elsewhere, reversing the gains. 

Federal enrollment data shows both UT and A&M have seen improving demographics on their campuses. In 2012, Hispanic students made up just 19 percent of the student population at the University of Texas. Now that number is over 24 percent. Similarly, Black students went from 4 percent in 2012 to now 5 percent.

At Texas A&M, the percentage of Hispanic students jumped from 16 percent to over 23 percent while the percentage of Black students has remained at 3 percent.

The current numbers are still a long way from looking like the state’s population. Statewide, Hispanic Texans make up more than 40 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black Texans represent 13 percent of the population.

State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said Republicans are putting universities leaders in a terrible position where they are afraid to say anything.

“They are under pressure by the leadership of this state,” he said. “They are intimidated.”

An uncertain future for the programs

But Abbott isn’t backing off. He has said he supports diversity but that schools are risking violating the law by manipulating DEI requirements in ways that can discriminate against job candidates who have all the merit to get a position.

“What we’ve seen in our universities is DEI practices that are there for political purposes, advancing political agendas,” Abbott, a UT graduate, said in a recent interview with Hearst Newspapers. “It is also used by faculty at the University of Texas and other universities to make hiring decisions that exclude certain people, that do not agree with DEI practices.”

Abbott’s comments come after conservative activists went after Texas Tech University last month because its biology department promised to “require and strongly weight a diversity statement from all candidates.” The university has since rescinded that requirement.

But anti-DEI advocate John D. Sailer said it goes well beyond just Tech. Nationally, he said, schools are imposing DEI priorities in all facets of university life, including making it a litmus test for promotions, tenure and hiring. The result is applicants know it can hurt them if they don't subscribe fully to DEI efforts, Sailer said.

Sailer, who is a fellow with the right-leaning National Association of Scholars, released a report on the University of Texas at Austin in January that warned DEI has “invaded every aspect” of the school.

“These policies espouse a specific set of contentious political views, dictate a new curriculum and embed the principles of DEI into the fabric of the university,” his report said.

At UT, each college, school and unit has a DEI officer as well as a website to highlight the importance of those efforts — a change that has roots in campuswide student protests in 2017 that led to the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers like Robert E. Lee.

Advocates of DEI say conservatives are warping what the program is. While equal opportunity laws have been in place for decades, colleges have failed to hire faculty that looks like the demographics of the state. DEI seeks to get more applicants from underrepresented areas and tries to make sure they have legitimate chances of being considered for jobs and future advancement.

The makeup of faculty at the two flagship universities shows few Black and Hispanic members in comparison to the state’s demographics. At UT, just 10 percent of the faculty is Hispanic and just 5 percent are Black. At A&M, just 5 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are Black.

Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP, said efforts to kill DEI will hurt Black, Hispanic and other historically underrepresented citizens.

“These programs help minority students navigate through college, and studies show they greatly enhance their prospect of graduation,” he said on Thursday.

The problem for DEI supporters is that Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in the state legislature and thus control the budget and the agenda. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who runs the Texas Senate, has made clear he sees one option for DEI.

“We’re going to wipe that out,” he told supports on a conference call last month.

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