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 09, 2024

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of Texas, Dallas

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 9, 2024, University of Texas, Dallas (UT Dallas) president Richard Benson announced that the university would close the Office of Campus Resources and Support (OCRS) and lay off 20 employees by April 30 to comply with a new Texas law banning diversity, equity and inclusion activities and programs in 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.

UT Dallas opened OCRS at the beginning of January 2024 as a replacement for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which was closed in an attempt to comply with SB 17. 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.

On April 9, President Benson emailed the university community sharing the news that employees who had DEI related positions had been notified that they would be laid off, although student workers would be able to keep their jobs through the end of the semester. Benson also noted some of the functions of OCRS would be “moved to other administrative units to ensure continuity of services to our students, faculty and staff.” He encouraged the employees laid off to apply for open positions at UT Dallas.

The office closure and layoffs came a week after UT’s Austin closed their Division of Campus and Community Engagement office (see report), and fits 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.dallasnews.com/news/education/2024/04/09/ut-dallas-lays-off-staff-closes-office-to-comply-with-dei-ban/
https://president.utdallas.edu/emails/message-from-the-president/
https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/19/texas-colleges-dei-ban/
https://www.keranews.org/education/2024-04-09/ut-dallas-to-eliminate-20-jobs-because-of-dei-ban
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2024/04/11/ut-dallas-close-former-dei-office
https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-texas-dei-bans-administrators-got-creative-then-they-got-in-trouble