Universities grapple with diversity policies after GOP crackdown
Professor writing on whiteboard in empty lecture hall. Getty Images.
This article originally appeared in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
AUSTIN, Texas — In July 2020, the president of Texas A&M University appointed a 45-member commission to examine the progress of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the nearly 70,000-student flagship campus in College Station.
The panel’s report, released in January 2021, found both strengths and weaknesses in the school’s approach. But overall, said the commissioners, “there remains within the Aggie community a strong desire to show bold leadership in support of diversity, equity and inclusion … and to ensure that ALL Aggies are welcome and respected at the school we think so grand.”
Two years later, the concept, typically abbreviated as DEI, is in deep disfavor in Texas and other Republican-dominated states, becoming yet another flashpoint in a nationwide culture war over race and gender.
Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, along with GOP lawmakers in at least seven other states, are pushing to ban DEI policies in colleges and universities, arguing that they amount to discrimination based on race.
On Feb. 4, Abbott’s chief of staff sent a letter to the heads of all state agencies, including public universities, warning them that “adding DEI as a screening tool in hiring practices or using DEI as a condition of employment” violates state and federal employment law because such policies “expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others.”
“When a state agency adjusts its employment practices based on factors other than merit, it is not following the law,” Gardner Pate wrote. “Rebranding this employment discrimination as ‘DEI’ does not make the practice any less illegal.
“Further, when a state agency spends taxpayer dollars to fund offices, departments, or employee positions dedicated to promoting forbidden DEI initiatives, such actions are also inconsistent with the law,” the letter said.
Supporters say DEI hiring policies, such as striving to interview a certain number of minority candidates for an open job, are designed to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of the population. The goal of DEI, they say, is to ensure that all people — no matter their race, gender, age, sexual orientation or physical ability — receive fair treatment and feel included in the workplace.
They have an ally in the White House. Two years ago, President Joe Biden issued an executive order declaring that “the Federal Government must be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, where all employees are treated with dignity and respect.” The order says the federal government “must strengthen its ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote, and retain our Nation’s talent and remove barriers to equal opportunity.”
The actions in the Lone Star State ignited condemnation from Black and Hispanic leaders, spawned worry among student and faculty groups and heightened tensions in the Texas legislature. GOP lawmakers effectively poured oil on the fire by adding a provision to a proposed state budget that would eliminate all state money for DEI programs and personnel.
“This has been a crisis,” said Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Reynolds credited DEI programs with helping overcome decades of racial inequality in a state with the nation’s largest Black population, at 3.5 million. “We’ve only recently made some progress,” he said, calling Abbott’s actions a “gut punch.”
Attorney Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas State NAACP, said Black organizations are working with Hispanic groups to oppose Abbott’s action, which they say is reminiscent of the state’s “sordid history of discrimination.” DEI supporters hope to encourage sports entities, such as MLB and the NCAA, to cancel events in Texas.
Pate’s letter came several days after DeSantis proposed a similar ban on DEI at Florida universities. Both DeSantis and Abbott have been mentioned as potential presidential candidates.
“In Florida, we are not going to back down to the woke mob, and we will expose the scams they are trying to push on the students across the country,” DeSantis declared in a news release. “Florida students will receive an education, not a political indoctrination.”
Opponents contend that DEI policies at universities mask a liberal or “woke” agenda and often force job applicants to tailor their applications and resumes to left-leaning viewpoints. DEI supporters dispute that assertion.
Abbott’s declaration against DEI resulted in a swift curtailment of DEI activities at major Texas universities, including A&M and the 51,000-student University of Texas at Austin, the flagship of the University of Texas system that includes eight universities and five health institutions.
Kevin Eltife, the UT System’s board chair, said the system will “pause” new DEI policies, saying that “DEI efforts have strayed from the original intent” and “raised the concerns of our policymakers around those efforts on campuses across our entire state,” according to the Austin-American Statesman.
Texas A&M and the University of Houston, a public school and the third largest university in Texas, both announced that they will stop asking job candidates to express a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion on their applications. Texas A&M also is banning the statements from the admissions process.
“No university or agency in the A&M System will admit any student, nor hire any employee based on any factor other than merit,” said A&M Chancellor John Sharp.
But the following day, Sharp also issued a clarification to university system presidents, calling for recruitment teams to “get off their butts” to enroll high-scoring African American high school students.
“One of y’all asked me if the A&M System statement about DEI that was released yesterday will lessen our commitment to diversity,” he said in a memo. “The plain answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT.”
‘The Damage Is Done’
Such assurances did little to ease apprehensions among many on college and university campuses.
Despite Sharp’s pledge, “the damage is done,” according to state Sen. Borris L. Miles, a Houston Democrat. “Removing DEI from student admissions tells prospective students of color that they are not welcome.”
Officers of the student government at the University of Texas at Austin voiced similar concerns in interviews with Stateline following a campus meeting of the student assembly.
“Not having those programs or not having any new policies and initiatives is a detriment to the student body, not just at UT Austin, but at schools across Texas,” said student government president Leland Murphy, 21, a senior government major. “I feel the governor is trying to play a culture war to score political points.”
Kevin Roberts, a government major from Fort Worth who serves as the assembly’s speaker, called Abbott’s decision against DEI “a bad one.”
The benefits of DEI have provided a “more inclusive campus” and “an environment that’s more welcoming for everyone,” he said. He said DEI policies helped build support for removing Confederate statues from campus, renaming buildings and launching outreach programs for underrepresented student communities.
“Being on campus for me has been, for the most part, a positive experience,” said Roberts, 21, who is Black. “I can say I feel welcomed when I’m here.”
Some faculty members expressed similar concerns. Jim Klein, president of the Texas Association of College Teachers and a history professor at the two-year Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, worries about the impact on enrollment at the predominately Hispanic 11,000-student community.
He’s also fearful that the retreat on DEI commitments could undercut the state’s long-term “60 by 30” initiative to equip at least 60% of Texans ages 25-34 with a post-secondary degree or tech certificate by 2030. Without DEI initiatives, he said, “we’re going to end up driving away the very populations that we’re going to need to be able to achieve that 60% hallmark.”
Texas colleges and universities have made enormous strides in diversifying their campuses over the past half century, but many administrators, professors and students say there is more to do. Experts say it’s virtually impossible to gauge the precise impact of DEI policies on those efforts.
Texas A&M began admitting women and African American students nearly 60 years ago. The DEI panel found that in recent years, Black student enrollment in the university had been mostly flat, increasing only slightly from 2,200 in spring of 2019 to 2,231 in the spring of 2023. Hispanic enrollment grew from 13,753 to 15,683 during the same period, while White enrollment dropped from 36,274 to 35,884, according to university statistics.
Over the past half-century, said the 2021 DEI commission, “the university has strived toward a more diverse and inclusive campus. … Nevertheless, like other land grant universities, it is not meeting its goal to have a body that reflects its state’s demographics.”
The commission cited growth in Hispanic enrollment as a “notable positive enrollment trend,” citing a 292% increase since 1999. About 40% of Texans are Hispanic.
By contrast, said the study, “the recruitment of the Black and African American population has been a persistent issue.” Black and African American students accounted for 2.66% of the undergraduate student population in 1999 and 3.15% in 2019. Black residents are about 12% of the total Texas population.
The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this month that faculty hiring at A&M and the University of Texas “shows few Black and Hispanic members in comparison to the state’s demographics.” At UT, 10% of the faculty are Hispanic, and 5% are Black. At A&M, 5% are Hispanic and 4% are Black.
Bills have been introduced by legislators in Florida, Missouri, Texas and West Virginia to cut funding for DEI in higher education, according to UT-Austin professor Brian Evans, interviewed in his capacity as vice president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.
Lawmakers in Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee also have proposed slashing funding for or banning DEI initiatives in higher education. A Utah bill would have banned DEI efforts in higher education but was changed to propose a study of the programs.
Four of the bills in Texas came from state Rep. Carl Tepper, a freshman Republican from Lubbock, the home of Texas Tech University, who said he began questioning the DEI concept and was contacted by faculty members who “were very upset and alarmed about the DEI statements they were having to fill out.”
“They were having to swear to a very uncomfortable ideology to get a job or maintain their job,” Tepper said. “So, this sort of attitude has woven itself through the university systems, through a lot of government agencies as well. It’s become sort of Orwellian, dystopian, where you have to swear to an ideology to get a job or retain your job.”
On the other side of the issue, state Rep. John H. Bucy III, an Austin Democrat, is pushing legislation to preserve the intention of DEI policies, asserting that each institution of higher education “has the general responsibility to serve all members of the public regardless of social background.”
While policymakers debate the value of DEI programs, some of those who have benefitted from the concept wonder about its future.
Xavier Egan, 37, came from a lower-middle income background in Houston. A strong student, he took advantage of diversity-based programs to earn a scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington. Now president of Arlington-based Capital Asset Advisors, he lives in nearby Fort Worth with his wife and two children.
“I took advantage of every opportunity I could to get educated,” said Egan, who is president of his alma mater’s Black Alumni Association. “We need to make sure there’s an opportunity for everybody to get an equal footing.”
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