Under scrutiny from legislators, Texas university leaders attest to how they’re complying with the state’s DEI ban

The Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education held a hearing on antisemitism, free speech and compliance with the state's DEI ban on May 14, 2024. (Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane For The Texas Tribune)

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Public university leaders tried to demonstrate their schools can still build diverse student bodies in a post-DEI reality and acknowledged a rise in reports of antisemitism on campuses at a wide-ranging hearing Tuesday that covered some of the most explosive issues rattling higher education in the state.

In their first public testimony since the ban on diversity, equity and inclusion offices went into effect, university system administrators explained to the Texas Senate subcommittee on higher education how they were complying with the state law. They said they have redirected millions of dollars away from their now-defunct DEI offices toward redoubling recruiting efforts and developing alternative student support programs.

“Every dollar spent on bloated university bureaucracy should be redeployed to ensure that all Texas students regardless of race, are college ready and heavily recruited for those that want to apply to a college,” said State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who shepherded the DEI ban through the Legislature last year.

Lawmakers put an end to DEI offices when they passed Senate Bill 17 during the 2023 legislative session. The law went into effect in January. Opponents of DEI programs and training said those programs indoctrinated students with left-wing ideology and forced universities to make hires based on their support of diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement.

Creighton called Tuesday’s hearing after he and GOP leaders expressed concerns that colleges were not fully complying with the law. The Conroe Republican has not provided specific examples about what reports of noncompliance he has received or discussed them at the hearing.

Creighton pressed Texas Tech University leaders about how they were changing the culture at the West Texas school so that DEI practices did not reemerge.

Texas Tech came under fire last year after its biology department asked job candidates to submit so-called diversity statements and gave them negative marks for failing to articulate the difference between “equality” and “equity.” Diversity statements are typically one- to two-page letters in which job candidates are asked to share their experiences working with diverse populations and their commitment to helping a diverse group of students succeed. Critics have characterized them as political litmus tests.

University leaders said the closures of DEI offices and programs have meant they now have new funds available to spend. University of Texas System administrators said they freed up $25 million in their budget after closing 21 offices, eliminating 311 full- and part-time positions and canceling 681 trainings related to DEI.

The Texas State University System saved $3 million and the University of Houston System about $750,000 after eliminating their DEI programs and positions.

Lawmakers last year blasted DEI programs as ineffective but recognized Tuesday that Texas colleges still have to build and maintain student bodies that reflect the state’s population.

“We all support diversity. We want to include more students in the kinds of opportunities that our higher education can provide,” Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, said. “Part of that includes recruitment.”

One school system, Texas Woman's University, opened a center for first-generation students in the months following SB 17’s implementation. Chancellor Carine Feyten described it as “race- and gender-neutral.”

Half of the system’s incoming students are the first in their families to go to college. Research shows that schools across the country have a harder time retaining first-generation students than their peers.

“I come before you today to report we scrubbed our house from top to bottom, we reorganized and that we are ready to serve our diverse student body just as effective,” Feyten said.

Testifiers and attendees enter the capitol for the May 15 Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education on campus free speech.

Protesters marched from the UT-Austin campus to the Capitol before the Senate committee hearing. Credit: Leila Saidane for The Texas Tribune

The hearing happened the same day that about two dozen protesters marched about a mile from UT-Austin’s Tower to the Texas Capitol to protest the DEI ban.

Many of the protesters said they were frustrated with how universities have complied with SB 17, pointing to the firing of dozens of employees at UT-Austin since January and the closing of centers and programs that used to serve students from marginalized backgrounds.

UT-Austin senior Maggie DiSanza said she greatly benefited from the Gender and Sexuality Center, one of the offices that shut down. She said she wouldn’t have enrolled at UT-Austin as a senior in high school if she had known those programs would close.

Rising UT-Austin junior Shelydon Ely said that the elimination of spaces like the Multicultural Engagement Center has made students like her feel less welcome on campus and has put the responsibility of supporting underserved students on the students themselves.

“I still have two more years here, but I worry even more for students that are coming here expecting to feel welcome and then they don't have these programs and resources that they expected to have when they come,” Ely said.

A rise in antisemitism 

Lawmakers also pushed leaders to acknowledge and respond to an uptick in reports of antisemitism on college campuses amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

UT-Austin student Levi Fox told state senators that verbal attacks and a pervasive fear for his safety have disturbed the end of his spring semester. One history professor told him and a group Jewish students “they’ll come after you and put you in the oven.”

“I have seen firsthand Jewish students taking off yarmulkes or hiding their Stars of David that are hanging around their neck or skipping Hillel Shabbat because it's been a tough week,’” Fox said. “It's horrifying to see my friends be scared to be Jewish. I never thought I would see that.”

Universities cannot restrict hate speech under the First Amendment, free speech experts say. But Middleton questioned whether recent acts of antisemitism invite government intervention to look at the intersection of free speech and religious freedom.

“It is un-Texan and un-American to have to hide your faith,” the Galveston Republican said.

About 73% of Jewish college students across the country have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the 2023 school year, a report from the Anti-Defamation League said.

Israel launched its siege on Gaza after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7. During the attack, Hamas took about 250 people hostage and killed 1,200 Israelis. Since then, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 77,000 people wounded, two-thirds of whom were women or children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

J.B. Milliken, chancellor of UT system, provides testimony on SB 17 on May 14, 2024.

U.T. System Chancellor J.B. Milliken testifies before the Texas Senate Committee on Education on May 14, 2024. Credit: Leila Saidane for The Texas Tribune

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have broken out in universities across the country as protesters call for schools to divest from firms and weapons manufacturers that support Israel. Last month, protests at UT-Austin ended in violent clashes with the police and the arrest of more than 130 people, sparking debates about free speech protections and who gets to enjoy them.

Some students and faculty have criticized the response as heavy-handed but state leaders have cheered on Texas university administrators when they’ve called law enforcement to shut down protests.

“There's a misconception that you can commandeer public property on a campus — a publicly funded university campus — and disrupt finals week, disrupt the flow of foot traffic,” Creighton said on Tuesday.

When asked whether he felt the recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations were anti-Jewish, University of Texas System Chancellor J.B. Milliken said yes, though he noted he didn't believe everyone involved in the protests was antisemitic. Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said that while protests on his campuses have been respectful, he acknowledged he had a pro-Israeli “bias” on the issue after recruiting students with strong ties to the country.

The hearing comes as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Texas Senate, has signaled he wants the chamber to propose new laws to prevent antisemitism, protect free speech and enforce the DEI ban on college campuses during next year’s legislative session.

Ikram Mohamed contributed to this story.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University, Texas Woman's University - Board of Regents, Texas State University System, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas 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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Correction, : An earlier version of this article misspelled Texas Woman's University Chancellor Carine Feyten's name.

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