Texas Tech reviews its hiring practices as efforts to promote diversity come under fire

The Texas Tech seal sits near the intersection of University Avenue and Broadway Street on the Texas Tech University campus on July 8, 2020. (Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune, Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Tech University officials say they are reviewing their hiring processes after a conservative education advocacy group criticized how the university’s biology department rates job candidates’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

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According to documents obtained by the National Association of Scholars via an open records request and posted online Monday, Texas Tech’s biology department used a rubric to evaluate finalists’ track record, understanding and plans to improve DEI on campus, along with other qualifications such as research quality, teaching experience and letters of recommendation.

In a statement Tuesday, the university said it will remove DEI evaluation rubrics if they are identified in other departments’ hiring practices.

“Texas Tech University’s faculty hiring practices will always emphasize disciplinary excellence and the ability of candidates to support our priorities in student success, impactful scholarship, and community engagement,” the statement reads.

As higher education institutions have pledged commitment toward creating more inclusive and diverse campuses, it has become common for universities to ask job candidates about their position on diversity, equity and inclusion policies and their experience working with various groups of students, such as people of color, people with disabilities, veterans and LGBTQ-identifying people.

But these efforts have become an emerging target in recent months from conservatives who believe they are discriminatory. This week, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office sent a letter to state agencies and public universities instructing them that it is illegal to consider diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring.

During a meeting of the Texas Senate Finance committee Wednesday, Texas Tech University System Chancellor Tedd Mitchell said that the situation in the biology department was not a universitywide policy.

“I don’t believe in litmus tests of any kind,” Mitchell told the committee. “It’s no more appropriate to ask them if they’re a Christian or Muslim. When we find out something like that has occurred, we stop it.”

Meanwhile, University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator told the committee that she viewed the letter from the governor’s office as a “reminder” about how her university system should conduct hiring practices.

“Reminders are always good,” she said. “For us, every search committee is given a training … ‘here are the laws,’ ‘this is how you don’t discriminate’ — it’s very clear for them.”

Khator added that the university system does work to encourage a diverse pool of candidates to apply to open positions.

But members of the Texas Black Caucus criticized Abbott’s position.

“Many of our institutions of higher learning and state agencies rely on the usage of DEI initiatives to work in tandem with anti-discrimination laws to ensure they don’t make hiring decisions based on race, religion or gender. In order to hire the best, you need a diverse pool of applicants to start with,” state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, wrote in a statement. “Eliminating DEI initiatives will only hurt Texas institutions.”

Efforts to gauge job candidates’ commitments to DEI can include diversity statements — in which candidates are asked to write about their experiences working with diverse student populations and the ways they plan to help students from all backgrounds be successful — and have become increasingly popular among universities across the country over the past decade. Most universities within the University of California system require candidates to write a letter describing their efforts to support diversity. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign requires diversity statements for those applying for tenure.

DEI initiatives within higher education also go beyond hiring. Over the past few years, especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 that set off a nationwide reckoning with racial disparities, Texas universities have made extra efforts to boost student diversity on campus with initiatives like additional scholarship funds.

Most Texas universities have offices committed to helping students from underrepresented groups stay in school and graduate. Many schools have diversity, equity and inclusion statements on their websites.

However, Republican leaders over the past few years have pushed back against some policies to promote diversity and academic disciplines focused on race and ethnicity. DEI and critical race theory — an academic framework that looks at how racism manifests in the country’s laws and institutions — have become a target of conservatives who argue that white people are being unfairly treated or characterized in schools and workplaces.

Many conservatives view DEI statements as requiring candidates to subscribe to ideological litmus tests.

“A DEI evaluation for hiring almost inevitably weeds out candidates on the basis of their political and social views. Someone who opposes, say, racial preferences in admissions or hiring would likely run afoul of the Texas Tech rubric,” wrote John Sailer, a fellow at the National Association of Scholars who first published the hiring documents at Tech.

The hiring process that is under scrutiny at Tech started in the fall of 2021 when the biology department at Tech posted four assistant professor job openings.

According to the documents released by the National Association of Scholars, each candidate met with the three members of the department’s DEI committee. The documents show that the committee weighed each applicant’s strengths and weaknesses about their understanding of DEI efforts, their own experience and their plans to promote efforts to boost diverse, inclusive and equitable practices at the university.

Broadly, the documents show that the committee considered it a strength if a candidate’s research was related to DEI, if they were interested in helping students or if they demonstrated an understanding of the potential financial barriers that might prevent students from succeeding.

The committee considered it a weakness if candidates did not grasp the difference between diversity, equity and inclusion; or if they lacked an understanding that struggling students might not reach out for help. The committee identified as a weakness that one candidate repeatedly referred to professors as “he,” which interviewers perceived as a microaggression against female faculty.

At Wednesday’s committee hearing, Senate Finance Chair Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who raised concerns about the biology department’s practices, said she expected more discussions on DEI to continue during the ongoing legislative session.

“My point of bringing this up today and having the beginning of a discussion is to let the universities know the budget writers are paying attention,” she said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University System and University of Houston 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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