Unpacking the Legislature: Higher Education

Texas AAUP members and allies protest bills attacking higher education and academic freedom in May.

While public institutions of higher education in Texas have weathered attacks from the state Legislature before, never have those attacks been so directly targeted by lawmakers as in this session. The struggles that higher education institutions face are unique, but those attacks can and should be viewed in the context of the broader assault on public education in Texas. 

As educators, we know that learning should challenge us. Without being pushed out of their comfort zones, students won’t have the opportunity to expand their understanding of important issues and grow. The goal of an educator is not indoctrination; in fact, that is the opposite of our goals. Yet accusations of indoctrination are continuously hurled at educators in Texas by political extremists.

It is important that academic freedom is preserved at all levels of education. Along with our affiliates with Texas AAUP and other allied groups, Texas AFT fought back against the multi-front assault on higher education this session.

Unpacking the Legislature

Read our other breakdowns of public education issues:

School Funding
School Employee Pay
School Safety
Educator Retirement
Educator Recruitment

What Passed … or Didn’t

SB 16, SB 17, and SB 18 were the most direct attacks levied at Texas institutions of higher education. This trio of bills was included as part of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s top 30 priority bills for the regular legislative session. While Patrick may have considered this package of bills a priority, SB 16, SB 17, and SB 18 were intended to appease his extremist base and did not solve the actual problems facing our state’s colleges and universities.

SB 16 by Sen. Bryan Huges (R-Mineola) constituted the most direct attack on academic freedom. In his announcement of these priority bills, Patrick stated the purpose of SB 16 was “Banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Higher Education.” 

Those who remember the attacks directed at public school educators last session, including bills like HB 3979 and SB 3, know that to Patrick a “ban on CRT” just means a ban on any discussion of any issue that contradicts or refutes his extremist agenda. SB 16 would have expanded that ban from K-12 schools to higher education.

Despite Patrick dubbing SB 16 a “CRT ban,” the exact text of the bill seemed relatively innocuous. According to the bill, SB 16 would have required institutions of higher education to commit to an environment of “intellectual diversity.” On paper, this sounds like a worthy and appropriate goal. 

However, when viewed within the larger context of the attacks on higher education, the true intention of this bill is clear: to chill discourse, research, and instruction these legislators dislike and encourage only what they do like. Our higher education institutions already promote an environment of “intellectual diversity.” The bill is intended to scare them into silence, stifling discussions and research into topics that go against Patrick’s ideology.

Although the Senate passed SB 16, leadership in the Texas House saw through this transparent attack on higher education and, fortunately, refused to even give the bill a hearing. 

Unfortunately, educators and students weren’t so lucky on the other fronts of attack.

SB 17 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) was designed to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs on college campuses. DEI offices are intended to integrate students from diverse backgrounds into collegiate environments. 

Oftentimes, these integration efforts are targeted toward students from communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented on college campuses, including specific racial and ethnic groups, as well as individuals with certain gender identities or sexual orientations. However, DEI practices are not limited to these groups. Veterans, students from rural communities, and students with disabilities also benefit from DEI practices.

SB 17 broadly bans DEI offices on college campuses, which act as a safe place for historically marginalized communities. It also bans any required diversity training for staff and students and prohibits consideration of race, gender, or ethnicity in hiring decisions. Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented both in the student body and faculty of Texas’ most prestigious public universities, like Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and a ban on targeted inclusivity initiatives will only exacerbate these inequalities.

While the bill was fundamentally flawed, many legislators in both the House and Senate offered amendments that would have reduced the harm caused by the bill. However, few substantive changes were made to the bill. Several harmful provisions were removed or changed when the bill came over from the Senate to the House, but the bill’s core purpose of rolling back DEI initiatives remained intact. 

The same was not true for SB 18. When SB 18 (also by Sen. Creighton) was received from the Texas Senate, leadership in the Texas House made substantive changes to the bill.  Despite that effort, the final bill was still unnecessary and harmful. According to Patrick, SB 18 was intended to eliminate tenure, and the version of SB 18 that passed the Senate would have done that. The version passed by the House, however, had entirely different language in the bill. Instead of eliminating tenure, the version of SB 18 that passed the House just significantly limited the employment protections established by tenure. 

Academic tenure is earned by professors at institutions of higher education after a rigorous evaluation of teaching, research, and service over six or more years. Under the traditional rules of tenure as outlined by our affiliates with AAUP, tenured employees can only be terminated with cause or under extraordinary circumstances. Tenure is not permanent or unconditional employment. Tenure protects freedom of speech by allowing Texas universities to foster critical thinking and discussion of ideas across the political spectrum — in other words, exactly what SB 16 purportedly demanded.

The version of SB 18 proposed by House leadership would have limited tenure protections to a single year of employment, essentially reducing tenure to one-year rolling contracts. What would remain of this reduction would have been tenure in name only, completely undermining tenure’s purpose. Thankfully, due to the work of a coalition of several groups, including the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Texas AAUP, Texas AFT, and other allies, Rep. Sheryl Cole was able to amend the bill to protect a tenured employee’s continuous employment, not simply for just one year.

Despite that important amendment, the bill still reduces tenure by expediting the process for removing tenure and by expanding the grounds for termination. Under SB 18, a tenured employee can be terminated if the employee exhibits “professional incompetence” or partakes in “conduct involving moral turpitude.” These categories of behavior are incredibly broad and subjective, and they constitute a significant weakening of employment protections.

While this trio of bills cast a shadow over this session, there were a few bright spots for higher education institutions in regard to funding.

Texas’ community colleges, which have been severely and systematically underfunded, will finally get a boost thanks to the passage of HB 8 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston). The bill will increase community college funding by $650 million. Of that additional funding, $428 million will go directly to the state’s community colleges via formula funding, and the rest will go to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to distribute to community colleges via competitive grants.

The new formula funding will more heavily weigh student achievement outcomes. Formula funding has previously been distributed to community colleges primarily based on the hours that educators are spending with students at community college.

HB 1595 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) also increased funding to Texas universities by establishing the Texas University Fund. Since the Permanent University Fund was established in 1876, the University of Texas system and Texas A&M University system have benefited from the state’s multi-million dollar fund. However, other Texas universities, like the University of Houston and Texas Tech University have not had access to this fund. HB 1595 would establish a separate fund to benefit Texas’ “emerging” research universities.

Why It Happened

Despite these funding wins, this session was fairly disastrous for higher education. While colleges and universities were able to dodge some extreme and egregious attacks thrown their way, the passage of SB 17 and SB 18 will hurt the standing of our state’s public institutions of higher education and lower the quality of education. 

Many highly qualified professors will not want to teach at a university that does not fully protect their employment status and that does not prioritize inclusion. Even though the most extreme versions SB 17 and SB 18 did not pass, significant damage has been done. 

In statements opposing SB 17 and SB 18, the bill’s detractors frequently described each bill as “a solution in search of a problem” during the House floor debate. This is a running theme in this Legislature. Legislators have not solved any issues with tenure at institutions of higher education, but they have created problems. Likewise, the Legislature has not solved any issues with diversity in Texas higher education; instead it has made those problems worse.

The comments that legislators make while pushing these harmful proposals, stating that university professors are somehow indoctrinating students and that diversity inclusion initiatives are somehow exclusionary, are simply smoke and mirrors to hide their true motivations. These bills appease a small but extreme political base. This base wants to see less diverse college campuses, with university professors teaching only what this extremist base wants taught, without broader intellectual inquiry.

As long as legislators continue to represent the interests of this small but outspoken group, students, faculty, and the standing of our institutions of higher education will suffer.

What Legislators Are Saying

Even with the significant attacks in SB 17 and SB 18 that have been signed into law, Patrick is not satisfied. As soon as the regular legislative session ended, the lieutenant governor released a list of bills that did not pass during the regular session and suggested that Gov. Greg Abbott include those items in a special session agenda. SB 16 was included on that list, along with several other harmful pieces of legislation.

The governor has the ability to unilaterally call the Legislature back into session to address specific topics in a special session. As yet, there has been no indication that Abbott intends to include SB 16 as a special session agenda item.

What to Expect Next

In response to the passage of SB 17 and SB 18, some universities have publicly posted their adjusted tenure and DEI policies. While some decisions have already been made, some are still to come. It is important that faculty at the colleges and universities affected by these bills be involved in the decision-making process for these new policies.

While we hope these attacks subside in subsequent legislative sessions, it is unclear whether these attacks represent the end or the beginning of a new normal that Texas higher education institutions will be forced to weather. Now more than ever, it is critically important for faculty at these institutions to get organized and get unionized.