TEXAS VIEW: The harsh consequences of the Texas GOP’s fervor to crush DEI at UT

The work of public universities – communal investments in the thinking skills and innovation needed to build a healthy society – needs to nurture a broad range of thought and experience in order to flourish. Last week, though, under the pressure of Senate Bill 17, an anti-DEI law, the University of Texas by some estimates laid off at least 60 of its staffers dedicated to protecting that freedom for Texas college students.

That’s at least 60 workers laid off not over questions of competence or relevance – but for their effort to facilitate academic success for every student. That’s more than 52,000 students getting the message that their state has marshalled both law and political pressure to remove school-funded DEI offices and initiatives, or staff that perform DEI functions, that allow students to find support, learn about differences, and feel welcome in their academic home.

And that’s Texas – driven by Republican fervor to hunt down and crush what they’ve deemed “woke” tendencies in education – gnawing deeply into the reputation of its magnificent higher education system. It’s the state alienating already-admitted UT students who might be its next energy game-changers or medical giants. It’s Gov. Greg Abbott heedlessly sabotaging a future that depends on thinkers from a broad range of background s, ethnicities – and yes, life experiences – for economic success.

Senate Bill 17, which went into effect in January, forbids the state’s public universities and colleges from funding any office, initiative, or program that supports diversity, equity and inclusion objectives. Last week 40 employees of the UT’s Division of Campus and Community Engagement lost their jobs. UT said the layoffs were for efficiency after it made changes to comply with SB 17 in January.

As a public institution, the university has had to comply with SB17 and, presumably, protect itself by speaking with neutrality. “The new law has changed the scope of some programs on campus, making them broader and creating duplication with long-standing existing programs supporting students, faculty and staff,” UT President Jay Hartzell wrote to the university community last Tuesday. “Following those reviews, we have concluded that additional measures are necessary to reduce overlaps, streamline student-facing portfolios, and optimize and redirect resources into our fundamental activities and research.” Funding for DEI initiatives will now be redirected to teaching and research, he said.

Such corporate-speak can hardly obscure the disinformation and practical consequences on Texas education.

Contrary to the rhetoric that created SB 17, DEI is not a plot to undermine merit in university admissions or campus life. It is part of a generations-long trend, with its roots in the civil rights movement, to address the obstacles that blocked minority groups from the education, job opportunities and chance for upward mobility that define America at its best.

Only gaining admission to universities – itself a generations-long struggle – isn’t enough. To excel in classes, shine on sports teams and enjoy the mental health and feeling of community that bolster achievement as a citizen, students at Texas universities deserve the right to supportive groups and clubs. Students from outside these groups learn and flourish by their proximity and participation in these campus-sanctioned groups.

The outcome of these initiatives is not a tidal wave of political correctness drowning the thinking of Texas students, as Republican critics of DEI policies would have us believe. And it’s not even the valuable prospect of students choosing Texas public universities and colleges.

The outcome is a Texas where students of all backgrounds can take full advantage of their education, where graduates benefit from social networks and new ideas far outside their own life experience. It’s a Texas that thrives because, as research shows again and again, diversity is the only way to access the full, rich talent pool available to us.

Austin American Statesman