Indifferent and Irresponsible: the disastrous first 50 days of Texas’ anti DEI law

The core purpose of this law, according to the bill text, is to stop institutions of higher education from “promoting differential treatment of or providing special benefits to individuals on the basis of race, color, or ethnicity,” but the implementation of the bill has revealed its practical, perhaps intentional, effect: to systematically remove any reference to diversity.

The effects of the bill may be most clearly visible at the University of Texas at Austin, just a stone’s throw from the Texas Capitol. UT Austin, a frequent punching bag for lawmakers in Austin, has been reckless and inconsistent in its implementation of the law. A recent article published in the Texas Observer and co-authored by UT Austin Education Professor Angela Valenzuela reveals that the university required the Multicultural Engagement Center (MEC), which has provided critical support to marginalized students since it was founded in 1988, to abruptly shut its doors and discontinue all its services without input from students and with no apparent plan to replace the center with something that does not violate the law.

The MEC provided a variety of services to Black, Brown, Asian, and LGBTQ+ students, as well as students of many other identities. These programs were not intended to provide preferential treatment, but were intended to uplift students whose identities are underrepresented or less visible and who were likely to be the first generation of their family to attend college. Many students have cited programs like those formerly administered by the MEC as a reason for choosing to attend UT Austin. Undoubtedly, the dissolution of these programs will have a negative effect on student recruitment and retention.

Curiously, the article also notes that early this year UT Austin also shut down the Monarch Program, which “serves undocumented youth of all races, ethnicities, and genders,” apparently as a part of SB 17’s implementation. The text of SB 17 does not mention a student’s legal status, and, therefore, one would think that the Monarch Program would not be affected by the law.

“You can be a white undocumented student, you can be an Asian American undocumented student, you can be a Latino undocumented student,” said Antonio Ingram, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in an interview with the Austin-American Stateman. “Undocumented status is not a racial category; it’s not a category that’s gender identity, orientation.”

Fearing a legislative audit, UT Austin was perhaps overzealous in its implementation of SB 17. While the Monarch Program might not be affected by the letter of the law, UT Austin administration may have understood that SB 17 was part of a broader movement to reshape Texas public universities to fit a Christian nationalist worldview, as we are now seeing at West Texas A&M. Perhaps that understanding [KK6] is what led administration to cut the program without a fight, to the obvious detriment of the many students who benefit from the Monarch Program’s resources.

Despite the overly broad restrictions of SB 17, there are still ways for faculty and students to promote diversity on campus. As previously reported in the Hotline, there are several critical exceptions to SB 17. Importantly, SB 17 does not affect academic coursework, research, or discussion.

Additionally, SB 17 does not prohibit student-led activities to promote diversity on campus. However, this exception of SB 17 obviously shifts the burden of uplifting diverse student voices onto the students. As stated in a recent article from UT Austin’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Texan, students are now to “carry the weight of SB 17.” Groups like Texas Students for DEI are doing what they can to carry that weight. So is the Onyx Honor Society — UT’s first and only Black honors society — which invited Rep. Ron Reynolds, the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus who passionately fought against SB 17 in the Legislature, to educate students on the scope of the bill.

But students do not have to be alone in this fight. Professors can support their work by acting as a faculty sponsor for student groups, facilitating the invitation of diversity-focused guest speakers to campus, teaching diverse subject matters in the classroom, and clarifying to students that SB 17 does not prohibit the free flow of ideas during classroom discussions. If some semblance of diversity is to remain at Texas institutions of higher education in the wake of SB 17, it is — now more than ever — essential that professors show solidarity with their students and support their critical work.