In Texas, we know that incoming hurricanes require preparations to reduce damage. But the state’s colleges and universities were ill-prepared for the superstorm of Senate Bill 17 (SB 17). Passed during the recent, regular session of the 88th Texas State Legislature, SB 17 ostensibly prohibits the privileging of individuals based on race, color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation, thereby defunding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher education.
Officials from the University of Texas at Austin, a leading university with Texas-size influence, have been recklessly inconsistent in implementing SB 17 in anticipation of a legislative audit. Administrators have also been indifferent to the vigorous response by students and their supporters to the highly consequential decision to defund initiatives designed to meet their needs.
Beginning on January 1, 2024, the University of Texas directed the Multicultural Engagement Center to shut its doors and discontinue the critical support that it provides for student-centered programs. Instead of a transparent and deliberative approach to redesigning and redefining student service programs to retain much of what has been built over the years, university officials’ interpretation of SB 17 has been an astonishing one of demolition.
To wit, the university bulldozed the many programs that the Multicultural Engagement Center housed, including: the New Black Student Weekend, Adelante, CultivAsian, Bloq Party, Four Directions, the Leadership Institutes, Afrikan American Affairs, the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, Latino Leadership Council, Native American and Indigenous Collective, Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Color and Allies, Students for Equity and Diversity, and signature graduation ceremonies like Black Graduation, Latinx Graduation, GraduAsian, Lavender Graduation, the Monarch Center, and the Gender and Sexuality Center , replaced by a new, student-run organization named the Women’s Community Center. As a recent Daily Texan article notes, students are now to “carry the weight of SB 17.”
Almost everyone who followed the legislative process understood that the passage of SB 17 would lead to the elimination of DEI offices and initiatives in all higher education institutions statewide. We further assumed that this would result in a plan to safeguard units like the Monarch Center, which serves undocumented youth of all races, ethnicities, and genders—SB 17 criteria that might have reasonably, if not lawfully, disqualified it from this sweep.
This blunt instrument of policy reflects fears of antidiversity legislators who are not only protecting their incumbencies but also doing so as part of a well-funded national assault on DEI programs throughout the country—a hostile, gale force campaign rooted in the fear of a browning America.
The core premise of DEI detractors is that DEI programs violate the principles of fairness and meritocracy when they accord “differential treatment of or providing special benefits to individuals on the basis of race, color, or ethnicity.” This despite an utter lack of evidence surrounding their claims. They also failed to offer credible, first-hand information on the long-standing operations of the numerous DEI programs in Texas that have been beneficial to students. Though conservatives have lacked good reason, sound evidence, and the sensibility of just change, they nevertheless wield excessive decision-making power in the Texas Legislature.
Higher education institutions inherited the responsibility of informing the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the public about how they would implement SB 17. Based on the wholesale dismantling of the Multicultural Engagement Center, it is highly likely that UT officials indeed had a preapproved plan. This raises important policy and procedural questions.
First, University of Texas executives began dismantling DEI programs without either a transparent or democratic process that would have ideally included consulting with important stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff. They also failed to respond to requests from Texas senators and members of the university community for copies of the implementation plan that they were preparing. Further, they conspicuously failed to offer exceptions to programs like the Monarch Student Scholarship Program and the Gender and Sexuality Center that serve students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The executives also self-servingly overlooked the fact that the spirit of SB 17 does not exempt whites from preferential and privileged status in senior management and faculty positions.
Finally, this flagrant disregard for sound judgment and a culture of fairness and equity that we all strive to maintain at the university may be violating federal law and guidelines that guarantee equal rights under the law. We may differ on how to define, measure, or enforce equity principles or antidiversity ideas, but we must, in all instances, proceed in an open, deliberative, and democratic manner. To not do so is to incite unnecessary political acrimony and strife.