Texas Senate approves bill that would ban diversity programs in public universities

After hours of contentious debate, the Texas Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would largely restrict how the state’s public universities can promote equitable access to higher education and cultivate diversity among students, faculty and staff.

Senate Bill 17 was approved along party lines in a 19 to 12 vote. It would require universities to close their diversity, equity and inclusion offices, which have become a mainstay on campuses across the country as schools try to boost faculty diversity and help students from all backgrounds succeed. The bill would also ban mandatory diversity training and restrict hiring departments from asking for diversity statements, essays in which job applicants talk about their commitment to building diverse campuses.

Senators who opposed the legislation argued that it would make people from underrepresented groups feel less welcome, turn back efforts to correct past discrimination and halt progress toward making campuses more representative of the state’s population. They also expressed concerns that it would make it harder for universities to receive research funding from federal agencies or private organizations that consider commitments to diversity when awarding grants.

"The consequences range from the unknown to the dire," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. "Senate Bill 17 will be a giant step backward in our quest for equal opportunity and equal worth for all. … I worry that stifling diversity, equity and inclusion on our academic campuses … will breed the negative attitudes and behaviors typically attributed to ignoramuses while stifling the development of tolerant, enlightened communities."

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who filed the bill, dismissed those concerns. Creighton and supporters of the legislation argued that DEI offices force faculty and students to adopt certain political beliefs and prioritize social justice over merit and achievement.

"DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged," he said. "Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech."

Senators approved a few amendments to the bill, including one to clarify that the legislation would not affect course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions. But Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, told The Texas Tribune in an email that those amendments do not appease his concerns about the bill's potential impact.

"There is no logic in the belief that you increase diversity by removing the policies and offices that work to promote it," he said.

Another approved amendment would allow the state to sue any accreditation agency that penalizes a university for complying with the law.

The bill, which is a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, heads to the House, where Speaker Dade Phelan has not treated the issue with the same urgency. None of the six bills that Texas lawmakers have filed in the House targeting diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education had received a committee hearing as of Wednesday. House lawmakers did attach a provision to their version of the state budget earlier this month banning state funds from going toward DEI offices and programs, despite pleas from Democrats to remove it.

Sledgehammer versus scalpel 

Under SB 17, university employees in charge of hiring new faculty or staff would not be able to ask job candidates about their understanding of the value of diversity or how they would work to create a campus where everyone feels welcomed. Training that discusses race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation could not be required.

The bill would also require university system boards of regents, who are appointed by the governor, to create policies to discipline or even fire employees who participate in any efforts to foster diversity.

In addition, the legislation includes strict requirements to make sure universities are following the law. Schools would have to prove to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that they are in compliance before they can spend any state money each year, and university system leaders would be required occasionally to testify before lawmakers that they have not launched any DEI initiatives. The state auditor would conduct compliance audits at least once every four years at each institution.

Universities that violate the law could lose state funds for a year. The legislation would also allow students and employees to sue schools if they’re forced to participate in any DEI training.

As Creighton laid out the bill Wednesday, he regaled lawmakers with anecdotes from campuses where he said efforts from DEI offices across the state had the opposite effect of their intended mission and created exclusionary campus environments.

He noted that Asian Americans were excluded from Texas A&M University’s equity and inclusion goals. And he called out Texas Tech University, where the biology department used a rubric to rate job candidates that considered it a strength if they expressed interest in promoting the tenets of DEI on campus or in their research, and a weakness if they lacked an understanding of universities’ efforts to improve diversity.

Creighton and other Senate Republicans criticized diversity statements as "loyalty oaths." Faculty have rejected that characterization as inaccurate. Diversity statements are typically one- to two-page letters in which job candidates are asked to share their experiences working with diverse populations and their commitment to helping a diverse group of students succeed.

Creighton also said that DEI offices are ineffective, arguing that Texas universities have largely failed to increase diversity among faculty members over the past decade. He cited a 2018 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found the presence of chief diversity officers did not help universities increase diversity among faculty and administrators in a 15-year period.

Throughout the debate, Democrats suggested that lawmakers should work with universities if certain DEI offices have fallen short or if schools have failed to meet their goals to increase diversity.

"If you want to fix this problem, let’s get surgical about it. Let's not take a sledgehammer to something we can fix with a scalpel," said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. "This is not a way to send a message to Texas that it is open for business for everyone."

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested the Legislature add benchmark goals for DEI offices to meet, or create a sunset provision to monitor their progress over a certain period of time.

But Creighton argued that Texas universities’ brands were at stake and that the Legislature needed to address the "damage and destruction" DEI offices are doing to Texas schools.

"We have to pursue a different route on our aligned goal to achieve diversity. We have to pursue a different route on our aligned goal for equal dignity for all," he said.

Ultimately, West criticized Creighton for not consulting with lawmakers of color on how to solve this issue.

"Why not bring us into the tent in order to get it done up front, not behind? That wasn’t done," he said. "All of your colleagues that are ethnic minorities in this chamber are saying the same thing to you: It’s wrong. But you’re not listening."

"This is what we need"

State lawmakers across the country have filed similar bills to disband colleges’ DEI programs this year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 19 states have introduced nearly three dozen anti-DEI bills.

Earlier this year, two conservative think tanks, the Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute, published a legislative roadmap for state legislatures to "abolish DEI bureaucracies" in higher education, which they defined as offices on campuses that they believe are pushing political ideas in the guise of creating more inclusive campus environments.

In February, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive to public universities and state agencies blasting DEI policies and ordering that hiring cannot be based on factors "other than merit." In response, the University of Texas System paused all new DEI initiatives and the Texas A&M University System prohibited DEI statements in hiring.

Students who support diversity initiatives say the pushback to these offices and programs will make it harder for college campuses to be equal playing fields regardless of race or class and to become places that are representative of the state’s population.

"It feels like things are barely moving forward," University of Texas at Austin student Alexia Palacios said of the efforts to increase diversity at her school. "Why would you want to have these steps taken back?"

Texas’ public universities have diversified as the state’s demographics have changed over the past decade. But while schools have more Hispanic students now, change has been slow. Black student populations have remained virtually unchanged.

Hispanic people represent 40% of the state’s population and Black people 13%, according to 2022 census estimates. At UT-Austin, Hispanic students made up 24% of the university’s population in 2021 and Black students 4%, according to federal data. Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University report similar figures. At the University of Houston, Black student enrollment has declined slightly to 11% as the Hispanic student population grew to a third of total enrollment.

Palacios said DEI offices ensure students from different backgrounds feel like they belong in these schools.

"It’s these spaces that give us the community we need and the courage we need to speak up and to show, hey, we’re here," she said. "This is what we need. This is really helping us."

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Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, Texas A&M University System, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas System and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.