Texas lawmakers find consensus on bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices in public universities
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Texas public universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion offices likely have six months left before they’re banished.
State lawmakers came to an agreement Saturday on legislation that would ban DEI offices, programs and training at publicly funded universities, largely adopting the version that the Texas House approved a week ago, with some minor changes.
Notably, the conference committee of lawmakers appointed to hash out the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill removed the House provision that would ensure universities reassign DEI office employees to new positions with similar pay. Instead, universities may provide letters of recommendation for employees.
Both chambers approved the final version of Senate Bill 17 Sunday and it now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott. If he signs the bill or allows it to become law without his signature, it will make Texas the second state in the country, after Florida, to ban such initiatives in public higher education.
Before the House vote, Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, made a plea to members to vote against the legislation, pointing to the fact that the NAACP recently issued a travel advisory to Florida because of recent legislation, including a ban of DEI programs in higher education.
"Don’t be on the wrong side of history," Reynolds said. "Don’t let Texas be the next state to get a travel advisory. Don’t let the politics of extremism get in the way in the progress that we’ve made over the years."
The House approved the final version of the bill with a vote of 82 to 61.
Bill sponsor Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, celebrated the bill's passage.
"The days of political oaths, compelled speech, and racial profiling in university hiring are behind us," he said in a statement. "Moving forward, Texas will prioritize the advancement of the most qualified individuals and endorse policies that promote diversity and equality for our great state."
Some Texas college students immediately condemned the decision to send the legislation to the governor, and pledged to continue pushing to make universities welcoming to all students.
"Our lawmakers fundamentally misunderstand the role of DEI in reconciling a longstanding history of systemic exclusion in Texas’s institutions of higher learning. DEI represents a dedication to create and maintain an open and supportive environment for all students regardless of background," a group of student leaders for the group Texans Students for DEI said in a statement. "The implementation of DEI offices and practices may be banned from college campuses, but the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion can never be removed from us, the people. We — those who care about academic pursuit, who want to engage with, learn from and walk beside people of all backgrounds, and who welcome all people — cannot be stopped."
ReferenceConference committee report for SB 17
The final legislation says universities cannot create diversity offices, hire employees to conduct DEI work, or require any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “color-blind and sex-neutral.” The bill would also prohibit universities from asking job candidates to provide written answers about how they consider diversity in their work or sharing how they would work with diverse populations, commonly known as diversity statements. Critics have equated diversity statements with ideological oaths, while supporters say they help ensure job candidates are prepared to support students from all backgrounds.
The legislation says university governing boards must adopt policies to discipline employees who violate these rules. Under the final version of the draft, university leaders cannot spend state money until they have declared to the state they are in line with the new law.
The final draft also states that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees state higher education policies, must conduct a study every two years through 2029 that documents how this legislation has affected enrollment, retention and graduation of students broken out by race, sex and ethnicity.
The legislation would not affect course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions.
DEI offices have become a mainstay on college and university campuses across the country for years as schools try to boost faculty diversity and help students from all backgrounds succeed.
These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring and programs to boost people from underrepresented groups in fields like science and engineering. They help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.
Critics accuse DEI programs of pushing what they characterize as left-wing ideology onto students and faculty and say that these programs prioritize social justice over merit and achievement.
Faculty have repeatedly warned lawmakers throughout the legislative session that if the bill passes, it might put state universities at risk of losing federal and private grants because they often require applicants to show how they are considering diversity and equity in their work.
In a statement Saturday, the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors said it was “deeply disappointed by the conference committee report.”
“The bill sends a clear message to students, faculty, and staff that our state is not committed to welcoming students from all backgrounds and to building a public higher education system that is truly inclusive and supportive of all,” Brian Evans, vice president of the Texas AAUP, said in a statement, reiterating concerns that the ban will make it harder to receive federal and private grants.
“The State should prepare for a loss of billions of dollars in research and programmatic grants,” he said. “We are already seeing staff and faculty leaving the state in response to proposed anti-DEI legislation, and anticipate this trend to be magnified in the years ahead. This is a giant step backwards for our diverse state of Texas.”
The House added language that if a federal granting agency or accreditation agency requires DEI programs, a Texas university or employee can submit a statement that highlights the school’s work helping first-generation college students, low-income students or underserved student populations.
Faculty and students from across the state have largely opposed the legislation since it was proposed, while university leaders have mostly been quiet about how the legislation might impact their schools.
Earlier this week, the conference committee report for the state budget stated that universities would receive $700 million in additional funding if the state passed Senate Bill 17 and Senate Bill 18, which will determine the future of faculty tenure in Texas. A conference committee has not yet announced if there is a final decision on that bill.
Stories like the one you just read come to life at The Texas Tribune Festival, the Tribune’s annual celebration of big, bold ideas happening Sept. 21-23 in downtown Austin. For just a little bit longer you can grab a discounted ticket to this year's event, but act fast — savings end on May 31! Buy now and save.