UT-Austin professors criticize university for halting antiracism study with preschoolers

Multiple University of Texas at Austin faculty groups say administrators are bowing to political pressure for pausing research into a program that teaches white preschoolers about anti-Black racism. (Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune, Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune)

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The University of Texas at Austin has paused a study on a program that teaches white preschoolers about anti-Black racism, drawing criticism from multiple faculty groups accusing the school of bowing to political pressure.

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The research project itself is the target of a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that claims it discriminates against children of color because only white children are participants. The three researchers conducting the study were told to pause their research as UT-Austin administrators conduct a legal review of the complaint.

But some faculty members say the pause will negatively impact the research and will set a negative precedent that could allow anyone “to derail faculty research based on content they may disagree with,” according to a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune on Monday.

“To succumb to political coercion, especially as it relates to scholarship that confronts anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and any other forms of oppression, compromises the central function of a public university,” the letter states. “The University’s actions send a message that risks censoring and chilling professor speech based on viewpoint, running afoul of central tenants of the First Amendment.”

In an email to the university’s provost, the researchers conducting the study said that based on consultation with people who have experience with the Office for Civil Rights and academic freedom experts, “this is an atypical and unprecedented response from a university.”

The UT-Austin Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility also sent a letter to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell and administrators stating they were alerted by the three researchers that the university’s action potentially violated their academic freedom. The organization said it would be investigating the allegation, according to a copy of that letter obtained by the Tribune.

The complaint about the research — and administrators’ directive to pause it — comes as conservatives in Texas and the U.S. wage a war against what they consider to be critical race theory. That academic discipline centers on the idea that racism is not restricted to individuals but is embedded in policies and legal systems. Experts on critical race theory say critics are actually targeting any teachings that challenge and complicate dominant, white-centric narratives about America’s history and identity.

The Texas Legislature this year passed new restrictions on how public school teachers can discuss current events, encourage civic engagement and teach about America’s history of racism. Last month, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, asked school districts which books available on their campuses included about 850 titles, most of which include discussions of race or sexuality.

The GoKAR! Project, which stands for Kids Against Racism, is a program developed to create “opportunities for caregivers to engage in dialogue about anti-Black racism with their preschool-aged children at home,” using children’s videos and discussion guides, according to a recruitment flyer on the school’s website. It was proposed through the university’s Associate Professor Experimental program and funded last year. It received a $100,000 grant.

Participants must commit seven to 12 hours and earn a $25 gift card for participating. According to the flyer posted online, the researchers wanted to recruit up to 200 pairs of caregivers and children to participate this fall. The flyer states that all participants must be white. Researchers said the study serves to deepen scholarship about the potential impact of reducing bias and systemic racism.

The program has received attention from conservative-leaning news outlets, including Fox News and the Daily Caller. UT-Austin faculty told administrators in their letter that the decision to pause the study after right-leaning news outlets wrote about it “is even more worrisome, as it represents a response motivated by political pressures.”

They call on UT-Austin to fully reinstate the study while the Office for Civil Rights considers if it will conduct an investigation. OCR investigations can take months and, sometimes, more than a year.

Concerns about setting precedent

According to emails obtained by the Tribune, UT-Austin Provost Sharon Wood emailed the three researchers Thursday night asking them to “pause delivery of any educational program materials to the volunteers who have agreed to participate in this project.”

“UT will work promptly to retain expert outside counsel to conduct an objective review under an expedited time frame,” Wood said.

On Sunday, the researchers received a follow-up email that amended the directive and said they must pause ongoing recruitment and enrollment of new participants.

The university did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment Monday. The university posted on its website last week that school officials were aware of the OCR complaint.

“Because we also expect all research projects to comply with the law and university policies, the university is conducting a legal compliance review of the complaint before this study is launched,” the website states.

Yet according to one of the researchers, Huriya Jabbar, they had started recruiting students to participate in October.

The three researchers who are overseeing the program declined to provide further details. They told Wood via email they will cooperate with the system’s legal review but asked the school to reconsider the demand that they pause their work and expressed worry that the university’s decision to pause their progress will create unintended consequences.

“We are concerned about the precedent that set, the door this opens for complaints filed by anyone to derail faculty research, the messages that this communicates both within and beyond UT, and the broader implications for researchers’ academic freedom at UT,” the email reads.

The complaint was filed by Mark Perry, a University of Michigan-Flint professor and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., who writes about economics. Perry has filed hundreds of complaints with the OCR against universities that he believes are violating federal policies. Recently, OCR said it would investigate eight of 10 complaints he filed since March 2020. That includes his complaints about Austin jeweler Kendra Scott’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute within UT-Austin’s College of Fine Arts and a meetup for first-year women engineers at the Cockrell School of Engineering known as “Chocolate Chats.”

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Perry argues that GoKAR! discriminates against children and caregivers of color by not letting them participate.

Faculty argue in their letter the research reflects the National Institute of Health’s guidance related to civil rights protections in research.

“Research projects are often limited in scope for many reasons, such as the principal investigator’s scientific interest, funding limitations, recruitment requirements and other non-discriminatory considerations,” the guidance states. “Thus, criteria in research protocols that target or exclude certain populations are warranted where nondiscriminatory justifications establish that such criteria are appropriate with respect to the health of the subjects, the scientific study design, or the purpose of the research.”

In their letter, UT-Austin faculty say there are multiple reasons the project limits participants to white students, including the size of the grant, consultations with experts in the field and a review of the current gaps in the literature.

“This limitation is important because existing literature indicates opinions, biases and the effectiveness of interventions vary across racial groups,” the professors wrote. “The study’s sampling of one racial group ensures that its findings are more robust.”

Perry wasn’t the only person who has shown interest in this research program, the professors allege. UT-Austin McCombs School of Business Professor Richard Lowery and Austin-based lawyer Louis Bonham both filed open records requests earlier this month requesting information from the research team.

Lowery declined to comment on the matter. Bonham has written about the study on Minding the Campus, a libertarian-conservative website that focuses on higher education.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Austin - McCombs School of Business and University of Texas at Austin - Texas Enterprise - McCombs School of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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