Amid Attacks on Higher Education, Texas AAUP Votes to Affiliate with Texas AFT

Screenshot of some of the participants in Texas AAUP’s March 30 vote to affiliate with Texas AFT.

Last Saturday, members of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors voted to affiliate with the Texas American Federation of Teachers. This vote marked the first state-level affiliation of the two national educator organizations, and was first set in motion two years ago when the AAUP and AFT voted to affiliate nationally on June 18, 2022.

The goal of the state affiliation, mirroring the goal of the previous national affiliation, is to unite higher education employees and K-12 public educators in the fight to protect academic freedom and unify faculty voices at the local, state, and federal levels. Texas AFT and AAUP members worked closely together throughout the 88th Legislature in 2023, fending off some of  and t. Recent attacks on higher education in Texas have mirrored attacks leveled at K-12 educators in the past, including pushes for increased censorship, attempts to silence diverse voices, and efforts to remove employment protections for educators.

“Our students and our educators deserve better than what this state has offered them,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT, after the vote. “The only way we build a better Texas — one that allows every student the opportunity to thrive — is by working together to build power for Texas educators and standing together when we are besieged by disingenuous attacks. I am so proud that our higher education peers in the AAUP recognize this fight for the freedom to learn as a shared fight, and we look forward to flexing our shared muscle throughout this pivotal election year.”

This vote occurred amid a series of new developments in state leaders’ continued attacks on higher education in Texas.

In Response to Anti-DEI Bill, University of Texas Axes 60+ faculty members

This Tuesday, reports surfaced from the University of Texas at Austin that over 60 faculty and staff members who previously worked in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) related roles had been laid off by the university.  As of the first of this year, Texas colleges were prohibited from hosting DEI programs and mandatory training due to the implementation of anti-DEI bill SB 17. Additionally, the state budget passed last year prohibits state funds from going toward anything DEI-related.

These layoffs occurred a week after Sen. Brandon Creighton publicly warned university administrators that they must fully comply with his vision of SB 17 and threatened the withdrawal of state funds if they did not. The text of SB 17, as it passed the Texas Legislature, specifically allows for employees in DEI-related roles to be transferred to different departments within the university with a recommendation letter, but the bill does not require these transfers.

At least 40 of these reported 60 laid-off employees worked in the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, which was previously called “the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement” before SB 17 went into effect. None of these laid-off employees are currently working in DEI-related roles, and, by all accounts, the University of Texas is already in full compliance with SB 17. Students and faculty familiar with the situation have conjectured that this action by the university was taken to “over-comply” with SB 17 to appease  Creighton.

In response to this development, Texas AAUP released a statement in partnership with the Texas chapter of the NAACP. In the release, the organizations state:

“At the time when they were issued pink slips, all terminated employees were no longer in DEI-related positions. Therefore, these terminations clearly are intended to retaliate against employees because of their previous association with DEI and speech that they exercised prior to their current assignments.  In addition, the way cuts were made in DCCE make it clear that racial and ethnic discrimination was the clear purpose of this action.”

These events confirm what many already knew: attacks on DEI are attacks on labor. These 60 employees should neither have lost their jobs due to partisan bickering, nor because of this state’s leadership trying to score cheap political points.

The Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Creighton, is holding an interim hearing in May to question university system chancellors and general counsels to ensure they are in full compliance with SB 17.

Gov. Abbott Moves to Silence Discussions of Certain World Events on College Campuses

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to revise free speech policy on college campuses, ia move that some advocates worry will stifle free discussion of relevant political issues.

In the press release announcing the executive order, Abbott states that the intention of the executive order is “to fight the increase in acts of antisemitism at colleges and universities in Texas and ensure a safe learning environment for Jewish students and all Texans.” The text of the order calls for a blanket “review and update” of “free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts.” It is not clear whether the review of these policies would only apply to antisemitic speech and acts or whether these updates would apply to campus speech broadly.

The release calls for university administrators to “establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the institution.”

Additionally, the press release specifically called out two student groups, Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine, accusing them of antisemitism.

While it is vital our elected leaders work to address the rise in hate crimes across the state, country, and world, some advocates worry that the action recommended by this order unlawfully curtails the First Amendment freedoms of students and faculty at Texas universities to speak without prior restraint on issues of public concern. Targeted harassment is clearly not protected by the First Amendment, but advocates are wary that this executive order and the resulting updated policies could be construed to suppress speech defending the people of Palestine.

As institutions of higher education in Texas are increasingly targeted with partisan political scrutiny with SB 17 and SB 18, advocates are understandably wary of any actions by this governor to control speech and actions on college campuses.

Texas AFT unequivocally condemns acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Earlier this year, Texas AFT joined AFT’s call for a Bilateral Ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.