With the start of the fall semester weeks away, educators at colleges and universities in Texas are bracing for the changes around diversity, equity, and inclusion that are set to take effect this school year.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a bill into law that bans diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and programs at state-funded colleges and universities. The bill prohibits diversity, equity, and inclusion offices that have the purpose of hiring based on race, “preferential consideration,” promoting policies or procedures outside of what has been approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, or conduct trainings, programs, or activities on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion offices are responsible for supporting students, creating and hosting programs, and connecting marginalized people on campuses with resources.
A state auditor will ensure state-funded colleges and universities in Texas are not in violation of the law through compliance audits. Institutions that do not “cure” violations in the 180 days after a violation is found are ineligible for formula funding increases and institution enhancements. While the law doesn’t go into effect until January 2024, many people working in education in Texas are already beginning to see a change.
“I think we need to be strong, and we need to contest this nonsense because it’s actually in their own best interest to stay viable,” said Angela Valenzuela, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
The change also impacted Dr. Kathleen McElroy, a prominent journalist with close to 30 years of experience, who was set to head Texas A&M University’s journalism program before her job offer was reportedly reduced from a tenure-track position to a five-year contract, then again to a one-year contract. McElroy had previously worked for The New York Times, where she advocated for diversity within newsrooms, and the discovery led to an alumni group complaining to the university’s administration. Hart Blanton, the head of the communications and journalism department at Texas A&M, told the Texas Tribune that McElroy’s contract with the university was shortened as a result of race. McElroy did not respond to a request by Prism to comment.
“These radical anti-DEI campaigns will detrimentally obstruct the future of higher education in Texas and taint the reputations of our competitive top-tier institutions,” said state Rep. and Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Ron Reynolds in a joint statement.
Diana Fuentes, a journalist, native Texan, and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s discouraging that students at Texas A&M University will not have the benefit of McElroy’s experience and perspective.
“Diversity is a lot more than just color. It has everything to do with individuality,” Fuentes said. “It’s culture, it’s gender, it’s urban, it’s rural, it’s age, it’s spirituality, it’s politics—it’s everything that makes a person, a person.”
Valenzuela said that in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, where McElroy serves as a professor in the School of Journalism and Media, one faculty member recently left their position after Gov. Abbott signed the legislation.
“A clear part of [our concern] is because we’re also parents, and we raise families, and we also want our children to be in environments where they feel nurtured and cared for,” Valenzuela said. “Texas just feels very oppressive.”
The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are referred to as the flagship universities of the state. In the fall of 2022 at the University of Texas at Austin, Latinx students constituted nearly 25% of the school population, with a Black student population of 5.3% and an Asian student population of a little over 21%. Similar figures represented the demographics of Texas A&M University’s student population that school year.
Recommendations to adjust to the ban are already in the works. State Sen. Royce West said his office is seeking feedback from Texans on how the state can work around the legislation.
“I hope we can come up with some race-neutral approaches,” West said. “We can’t use race anymore.”
One plan West hopes to utilize as a solution is similar to the Top 10% Rule, which guarantees admission for those within the top 10% of their high school graduating class to a public Texas state university. The plan guarantees admission for the top 6% of graduating high school seniors at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Differences are what makes us a community,” Fuentes said. “When you start saying that somebody’s work is too focused on diversity, [it] is doing a disservice.”
With more students of color attending the state’s flagship universities, Valenzuela said she believes students, faculty, and staff will leave the state for opportunities at other colleges and universities.
“The horizon is pretty bleak for the recruitment of top-notch faculty to UT [University of Texas at Austin] and Texas A&M when they could go elsewhere,” she said, adding that conservative lawmakers are engaging in an attack on “woke curriculum” across higher education more broadly. The looming effective date of the law in Texas is concerning for Valenzuela.
“It’s gonna feel like cold water, come January or before, when all of a sudden there [aren’t any] more programs like there had been previously that were paid by the state,” Valenzuela said. “Then there’s gonna be tensions around the programs that do exist that promote diversity because they’re linked to research, to funding existing projects that may have to get rebranded differently.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will conduct a study every other year that analyzes the impact of this legislation. The board will review application, acceptance, matriculation, retention, and graduation rates and grade point averages within the study without including race, sex, and ethnicity as a factor.
In the meantime, many educators are concerned about what the new law could mean for colleges and universities nationwide. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a similar legislation that bans state-funded colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Valenzuela said while there is a lot unknown and the bill is not in effect, this kind of legislation may discourage marginalized students from pursuing higher education.
“I don’t think that the legislature is done with us,” Valenzuela said. “I think that they want to eliminate critical thought.”