SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: April 02, 2024

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of Texas-Austin

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 2, 2024, University of Texas, Austin’s (UT Austin) president Jay Hartzell announced that the university would close the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and lay off around 50 employees who held DEI-related positions in order to comply to comply with a new Texas law banning diversity, equity and inclusion activities and programs in the state’s public colleges and universities.

The law, Texas Senate Bill (SB) 17, which went into effect on January 1, 2024, prohibits public colleges and universities from having diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and holding activities and programs related to DEI. As part of the law, a state auditor will conduct compliance audits at least once every four years at each higher education institution. The institutions could lose millions of dollars in state funding if found to be in noncompliance with the law.

The university opened the Division of Campus and Community Engagement at the beginning of the year to replace the DEI office, which had to be closed under SB 17, as an attempt to comply with the new legislation without laying employees off. In March 2024, an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education described how Texas universities were attempting to address the law simply by changing the names of offices and positions. In late March, SB 17 author Senator Brandon Creighton sent a letter to university leaders announcing a hearing in May to determine compliance with the new law. The letter stated that universities that have simply changed the name of their DEI office but not the nature of their work would not be considered compliant with the law.

President Hartzell announced the closure in a campus wide email, stating that the university had reviewed its programming following the implementation of SB 17 and concluded that the closure was “necessary to reduce [programmatic] overlaps, streamline student-facing portfolios, and optimize and redirect resources into our fundamental activities of teaching and research.” After UT Austin announced the layoffs, Senator Creighton applauded the university’s administration for “taking steps to ensure compliance with SB 17.”

The office closure and layoffs fit into a broader pattern of states targeting DEI programs. At least 70 anti-DEI bills have been introduced across 26 states since 2023, with at least 13 passing.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a university laying off employees as a result of an ideologically driven, political directive. This is a direct encroachment by the government on the university’s authority to set policies concerning personnel, admissions, curricula, and the establishment of particular programs. External actors, including government officials and political actors have a right to free expression, but should not be permitted to impose undue pressure on universities’ academic decisions, including those relating to the hiring and firing of academic personnel, or curricula. Universities should take measures to ensure, wherever possible, that such decisions remain free from outside pressure and are driven solely by academic considerations. Such actions undermine university autonomy and inhibit institutions’ ability to function freely, undermining academic freedom and democratic society generally. Moreover, actions targeting diversity and social justice efforts may also erode core university values including social responsibility and equitable access.

Sources:
https://www.statesman.com/story/news/politics/state/2024/04/02/texas-senate-bill-17-anti-dei-ut-fires-four-staff-related-positions-two-sources-confirm/73179902007/
https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/19/texas-colleges-dei-ban/
https://www.kut.org/education/2024-04-02/ut-austin-dei-diversity-law-sb-17
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/government/state-policy/2024/04/10/diversity-office-name-changes-spark-concern-both-sides
https://aaup-utaustin.org/2024/04/02/joint-press-release-by-texas-aaup-texas-naacp/
https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-texas-dei-bans-administrators-got-creative-then-they-got-in-trouble