Senate Higher Ed Subcommittee Convenes to Study DEI, Free Speech, & Antisemitism 

Left: Texas AAUP-AFT President Brian Evans speaks to media Tuesday with allied groups and elected officials, including state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Houston) and state Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio). Right: Educators, students, and community allies march from the UT Austin campus to the Texas Capitol.  

This Tuesday, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education convened to consider the issues of free speech, antisemitism, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). This hearing was called last week to fulfill Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s charge to the Senate that it study this issue before the next legislative session, along with some other interim charges related to higher education and several interim charges related to K-12 public education. In theory, the study of these issues will inform legislators’ agendas heading into the next session.  

Texas AAUP-AFT joined several allied groups seeking to defend free speech and DEI programs. Many advocates including allies with the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), ACLU of Texas, Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT), and others began the day at 7:30 a.m. by marching from the University of Texas at Austin campus to the Capitol for the hearing. The hearing lasted until 8 p.m. 

Several events preceding the interim hearing – including free speech crackdowns against campus anti-war protestors, the implementation of Senate Bill 17 (Texas’ DEI ban), and the decision to terminate many dozens of faculty and staff at schools in the UT system, despite them being in full compliance with state law – galvanized 148 members of the public to wait for hours to provide public testimony to the subcommittee. Most public testifiers, who included students, faculty, staff, and alumni, spoke in favor of DEI programs, against recent attacks on free speech, and against any form of antisemitism. 

Interim hearings are intended to give legislators the opportunity to study important issues and hear from the public on where they stand. However, public testimony on these interim charges did not begin until over 6 hours after the hearing began, which forced many individuals who came to the Capitol to leave before they could provide their perspective in testimony. Before hearing from the public, the committee heard from several individuals who were invited by the committee to testify.  

At this hearing, most invited testimony came from individuals representing the Texas public universities. In March, these universities received a letter from Sen. Brandon Creighton, the chairman of the subcommittee, that requested a report on the university systems’ compliance efforts and threatened “strict enforcement measures, including the potential freezing of university funding and legal actions for non-compliance.” 

With these threats in mind, representatives of the universities were understandably deferential to Crieghton, who authored SB 17. In her testimony, Texas Woman’s University Chancellor Carine Feyten said “I come before you today to report we scrubbed our house from top to bottom, we reorganized and that we are ready to serve our diverse student body just as effective.”  

These representatives reported that considerable university resources had been diverted from DEI programs but offered little information on how these resources will be used and what universities plan to do to fill in the service gaps left by defunct DEI programs. DEI programs and the now terminated or reassigned individuals who previously administered them provided students with valuable resources and services. Representatives of the University of Texas at Austin shared with the subcommittee that the entire Division of Campus and Community Engagement (DCCE), which offered services to all students, had been shut down. 

University administrators also defended their recent actions to disrupt peaceful student protests on campus. Many of the Republican legislators on the dais, who, by and large, came out in support of police interventions against peaceful protestors, had previously supported Senate Bill 18 (86-R). This bill, according to Gov. Greg Abbott who signed it into law, “protects free speech on college campuses in Texas.” This bill was passed after Texas A&M canceled a rally with Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed white nationalist who is openly sympathetic to Nazis, and was threatened with a free speech lawsuit. 

While waiting for the public testimony to commence, Texas AAUP-AFT joined a press conference hosted by a coalition of allied groups including NAACP, LULAC, the Legal Defense Fund, Equality Texas, the Legal Defense Fund, Texas Rising, Texas Students for DEI, and others. The groups also released a statement to coincide with the press conference. Rep. Ron Reynolds, Chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), Chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, joined the press conference as well. Texas AAUP-AFT President-Elect told the press, “Without a reversal (of SB 17), our students will continue to lose highly qualified, effective professors, both from attrition and the near-impossibility of recruiting instructors from other states.” 

When the subcommittee finally moved on to public testimony, dozens of Texas AFT and Texas AAUP-AFT members and leaders were ready and waiting.  

Dr. David Albert, who is the president of the AFT local union at Austin Community College and is Jewish, provided testimony on the antisemitism charge.  

“In many cases the term antisemitism is being misapplied to demonize peaceful protesters” Albert testified. “Criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is not antisemitism. Criticism of the Netanyahu government is not antisemitism. Criticism of the Israeli Occupation or the Gaza operation are not antisemitism.”  

Jim Kuhn, an archivist at UT-Austin, provided his perspective on how attacks on diversity-based trainings have impacted his academic work, despite the fact that SB 17 included specific carve outs for research. 

“Without a clear commitment to freedom of inquiry, to diversity of viewpoint, and to encouraging training in best practices for public employees engaged in this work, we risk discrimination against students and scholars researching topics related to historically underrepresented and marginalized voices,” Kuhn testified. “Training is required because our work includes a commitment to represent and provide access to all materials, including those from historically underrepresented and marginalized voices.” 

Subcommittee members seemed largely unmoved by the outpouring of public support for DEI programs and public opposition to free speech infringements. The five-person subcommittee is disproportionately Republican, with Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), who offered a full-throated defense of DEI, the sole Democrat serving on the subcommittee. Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), who is not a member of the subcommittee but does serve on the broader Senate Education Committee, sat in on the committee proceedings and provided critical support from the dais to members of the public who traveled many miles to make their voice heard.  

The future of higher education in Texas is startlingly unclear, but most subcommittee members ended the hearing unmoved from their previous positions, despite the hours of testimony from the public in opposition.