Lt. Gov. Announces Politicized Interim Charges for Higher Education 

Last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released his interim charges, outlining the items that Patrick intends for senators to study in preparation for the next legislative session. In our last edition of the Hotline, Texas AFT unpacked each of interim charges that affect K-12 public education. This week, we’re diving into the seven interim charges announced by the lieutenant governor that affect higher education. 

In his first interim charge listed for the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee, Patrick reveals a great deal about his intentions for higher education in the next legislative session. He directs the committee to “review and analyze the structures and governance in higher education, focusing on the role of ‘faculty senates.’” Faculty senates are governing bodies at many institutions of higher education across the country that represent faculty voices in governance of colleges and universities. This includes, in many cases, a voice when it comes to personnel decisions, selection of administrators, preparation of the budget, and determination of educational policies 

Shared governance through faculty senates or similar institutions is a core tenet of academic freedom as outlined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which is affiliated with AFT. The fact that Patrick, who has blatantly disregarded the importance of academic freedom through his repeated attacks on higher education last session, is directing the Senate to “make recommendations to establish guidelines” regarding faculty senates is not a good sign for the survival of these critical institutions. 

Patrick also directed the Senate to review two controversial bills passed last legislative session: Senate Bill 17 and Senate Bill 18. SB 17, which bans “DEI” initiatives at institutions of public higher education, was passed along party lines during the regular legislative session last year. The bill went into full effect in January of this year. In just those few months, we have seen universities gut critical student service programs, terminate employees who were previously in positions related to DEI, and generally over-comply with the vaguely written law.  

Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), the author of SB 17 and the chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee, recently sent a letter threatening to take action if schools did not fully comply with his vision of SB 17. Creighton called on university systems to send representatives to a hearing in Austin in May to discuss how they are ensuring that no diversity, equity, and inclusion programming occurs on campuses. It is unclear whether this hearing is connected to or independent of the interim charges. 

Though it is typical for the Legislature to review the implementation of sweeping bills like SB 18, which reduced faculty tenure protections at institutions of higher education, Patrick’s focus on this issue is worrying. Last session, Patrick’s Senate passed a version of SB 18 that would have totally eliminated faculty tenure at most public institutions in Texas. However, the version of SB 18 passed by the House, which ultimately became law, was significantly pared down. Though Patrick stated at the end of last session that he did not intend to bring back his original version of SB 18, the fact that Patrick is again directing focus to the issue does not bode well. 

Patrick also directed the subcommittee to study the implementation of House Bill 8, the proposal that retooled the state’s community college finance system. Though it received less political attention last session, HB 8 by Rep. Gary Van Deaver (R-New Boston) was a critical investment into Texas’ community college system, directing more than $680 million to the state’s 50 community college systems. As previously noted in the Hotline, colleges like Austin Community College are taking advantage of this generational investment to make college more affordable in order to help students meet the state’s increasing workforce needs.  

Mirroring a similar call by Gov. Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick added an interim charge to examine policies to prevent antisemitism on college campuses. Similarly to Greg Abbott’s letter, Patrick’s charges were at least partially intended to target student groups that support Palestinian statehood. Relatedly, Patrick also included an interim charge to examine free speech protections for students, faculty, and staff. Texas AAUP-AFT issued a statement earlier this month, calling on the governor to rescind his executive order “so as to protect the rights of faculty and students to speak on all topics of public or political interest without fear of intimidation, retaliation, or punishment.” 

Lastly, Patrick included a charge to “investigate the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology on teaching and learning, focusing on artificial intelligence (AI), online education, and digital resources.” This charge specifically directs the committee to “examine aspects of intellectual property.” Intellectual property rights have become an important issue with the proliferation of AI. Especially in academia, legislators have a duty to balance opportunities for innovation with respect for individual contributors.