A ban on Texas public universities’ diversity offices inches closer to becoming law

After hours of debate and multiple attempts to kill the legislation from Democrats, Texas is one step closer to banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices in public colleges and universities Friday.

In a 83 to 60 vote, the Texas House gave preliminary approval to one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s legislative priorities that would prohibit such offices, programs and any required diversity training.

In an attempt to stop a deluge of amendments from Democrats opposing Senate Bill 17, lawmakers approved an amendment offered by the bill’s sponsor, Seguin Republican John Kuempel, that requires the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct an annual study into the impact of banning DEI offices, allows universities to make "reasonable efforts" to re-assign employees in DEI offices to new positions with similar pay, and shifts the day the bill goes into effect back by three months to Jan. 1.

The coordinating board is the state agency that oversees higher education policy at public colleges and universities.

This amendment was also an attempt to appease Democrats’ concerns that eliminating diversity offices and programs would put universities at risk to lose federal grants, one of the many reasons they kept filing amendments to try and delay the bill's passage Friday night. Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said the extension will give universities time to ensure current grants can still comply with any DEI requirements.

The legislation still needs final passage before it heads back to the upper chamber where the Senate could accept the changes or elect to meet in a conference committee of lawmakers to hash out the differences. If the legislation becomes law, Texas would be the second state in the nation with such a ban, following Florida.

DEI offices have become a mainstay on college and university campuses across the country for years as schools try to boost faculty diversity and help students from all backgrounds succeed.

These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring, programs to boost the number of underrepresented groups in fields like science and engineering, and efforts to increase diversity among faculty. They help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.

House Democrats lamented that the legislation rolls back progress and jeopardizes investments the state has made in its universities. Those who support such offices argue that removing them or weakening their influence will make schools less welcoming places to work and study, turn back efforts to correct past discrimination against students who were not always welcome on campus and stall progress to make public universities' student populations better reflect state demographics.

"This legislation is telling us that Texans fear diversity," said Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas. "This legislation shows us that folks are so afraid of inclusive practices at public universities that they're willing to go as far as defunding our public universities."

But Kuempel argued that these offices are not helping to achieve the diversity everyone claims to want.

​"There is virtually no evidence that DEI programs have closed the gap in terms of minority student outcomes, minority recruitment and faculty hiring," Kuempel told members when he laid out his version of the Senate bill on the House floor Friday.

Critics also accuse DEI programs of pushing what they characterize as left-wing ideology onto students and faculty and say that these programs prioritize social justice over merit and achievement.

Texas university students have rejected that criticism.

"I think they are upset with the fact that people who have historically been marginalized are getting opportunities that people who have been from majority groups have been getting forever," said Sameeha Rizvi, a student at the University of Texas at Austin who has been organizing against the legislation. "So it just feels like a political attack on a very real entity that is meant to help all students."

The compromising amendment offered to end the debate late Friday was not the only change lawmakers made to the House version of the bill.

Earlier in the debate, Kuempel also successfully introduced an amendment that clarifies the legislation bans DEI offices that "promote differential treatment," and ensures all hiring initiatives are "color-blind and sex neutral."

Kuempel’s first amendment was an attempt to beat back an attempt from a fellow Republican, Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler, to restore language written by the Senate.

The legislation now says any DEI policies, training or programs must be approved by university lawyers or the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and requires the state to audit the universities once every four years. If a school is found to violate the bill, they have 180 days to fix the issue or risk losing state funding. It also allows students and employees to sue a university that violates this law.

It also replaced the changes Kuempel had originally made to the Senate bill that would have allowed for DEI programs if they were needed to comply with federal grants and accrediting agencies, a change that was viewed as an attempt to water down the Senate's more extreme version. Instead, the House version of the bill now says that when applying for grants or complying with an accrediting agency, an employee can submit statements that highlight work in supporting first-generation college students, low-income students or underserved student populations.

The House approved that amendment, but Democrats continued to hammer away with additional amendments until Republicans found a way to amend the bill to their liking.

As originally introduced, the Senate version would have required universities to close their diversity offices, ban mandatory diversity training and restrict hiring departments from asking for diversity statements, essays in which job applicants talk about their commitments or efforts to build diverse campuses. When the Senate voted out its version of the bill, members added an amendment that the legislation would not affect course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions.

Faculty have repeatedly warned lawmakers throughout the legislative session that if this bill passes, it might put state universities at risk of losing federal and private grants because they often require applicants to show how they are considering diversity and equity in their work.

On Thursday, Democrats successfully delayed the debate on the House’s version of a bill meant to change how faculty tenure works at public universities using a point of order that argued the bill analysis was misleading. The House Higher Education Committee has already voted that bill out of committee again, but it has not yet been scheduled to return to the House floor. Senate bills must receive preliminary approval from the House by Tuesday.

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