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Texas universities cut jobs after Texas bans DEI programs

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Texas is abolishing or rolling back diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state-funded colleges and universities. Similar legislative efforts in more than a dozen other states seek to shut down or pare back DEI efforts in higher education and government. Under the new Texas law, which came to life as Senate Bill 17, all DEI hiring and training offices at public colleges are closing. Bill Zeeble of member station KERA reports.

BILL ZEEBLE: Earlier this month, more than 80 faculty members in two Texas public universities were fired for their previous jobs in diversity, equity and inclusion departments. And fear of the new law means public universities here are no longer funding LGBTQ events, such as Pride celebrations, or cultural occasions, including graduation ceremonies geared toward Black, Latino and Asian students. Senate Bill 17 took effect January 1 of this year, forcing changes at every public university in Texas. Before DEI departments even closed, schools hurried to reassign employees as college lawyers vetted compliance with the new law. SB17 author, Republican state Senator Brandon Creighton, was watching.

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BRANDON CREIGHTON: DEI units had weaponized in certain circumstances themselves against other minority student populations and applicants. Leftist political loyalty oaths, that is just not something that we can allow to be a requirement for new professors applying.

ZEEBLE: That's Creighton talking to KXAN TV in Austin. We couldn't find any evidence of loyalty oaths, and his office did not respond to requests for documentation. And DEI offices here helped students, too. Creighton grew concerned some colleges were simply changing the names of DEI departments to something else, which he called unacceptable.

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CREIGHTON: Essentially, we had a neon sign above the door of every HR department, of every public university in the state that said if you are moderate to conservative, you need not apply here.

ZEEBLE: The senator then sent chills through university offices, saying in a letter he'll hold a hearing in May on compliance with SB17. Failure to adhere to the law could cost schools millions in state funding. A week later, the University of Texas at Austin, the state's flagship school, dismissed 66 people who'd worked in DEI departments.

BRIAN EVANS: Very surprised they're actually firing. Those positions are not coming back.

ZEEBLE: That's Brian Evans, president-elect of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

EVANS: Nobody who received the termination notice knew it was coming. So a total shock.

ZEEBLE: A week later, UT Dallas laid off its DEI employees. This was months after President Richard Benson promised no one would lose their job because of the new law.

RICHARD BENSON: There are some things that will continue, maybe with a little bit of change, and then there are some things that maybe can't continue. But one thing I've told all of my people is nobody is going to lose a job. I don't want them worried about that.

ZEEBLE: After more than 20 people at UT Dallas were fired, faculty and staff now worry. Vickey VanNest (ph) says teachers have felt that harsh chill on campus for a while now. The executive director of the Texas Community College Teachers Association says the law does not explicitly ban curricula that touch on DEI, but she says professors are now afraid about its impact on both teaching and celebrations of people's cultures. She says they're afraid to teach topics some student or lawmaker might say follows some DEI agenda.

VICKEY VANNEST: I've gotten calls saying, can I celebrate Black History Month? Can my library put up Hispanic Heritage Month books? Can I send my students to go do this extracurricular activity? And the answer is maybe, maybe not. I mean, it's a very fine line. Everything has to be looked at.

ZEEBLE: Before these schools fired anybody, they'd made changes prompted by SB17. UT Austin ended the Monarch program that advised and mentored undocumented students. The University of North Texas canceled Pride Week celebrations in the library.

UT Austin student Isabel Bellard, a junior and a first-generation college student, took it personally. She says she chose the school in part because of these programs that are now being dismantled. Bellard is half Black and half Mexican and says UT's DEI programs, including orientation specifically for Black students, made her and others feel heard and cared about by the school. She mentored freshmen in a DEI program. Now she's angry.

ISABEL BELLARD: Students are starting to text us upperclassmen saying, hey, I'm kind of scared to go to UT now. It sounds like they don't want people like me there 'cause they don't have programs for me. And now we have the burden as upperclassmen trying to figure out, what do I tell them, the truth? - and tell them that, hey, yeah, this university really doesn't care about us anymore.

ZEEBLE: Data shows Black and Hispanic students who are among the most likely to use DEI programs are already at a 10- to 20% or higher risk of not finishing college compared to white students. Presidents of UT Austin and UT Dallas acknowledged strong feelings by staff and students regarding the DEI dismissals. Both urged fired workers to apply for other open positions. But some of those DEI staffers are now considering legal action, saying they were fired without due process.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues. Heâââ
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