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FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2012, file photo, students walk through the University of Texas at Austin campus near the school's iconic tower in Austin, Texas. A ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education has led to more than 100 job cuts across university campuses in Texas, a hit echoed or anticipated in numerous other states where lawmakers are rolling out similar policies during an important election year. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
By ACACIA CORONADO Associated Press
Published: 15 April 2024

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education has led to more than 100 job cuts across university campuses in Texas, a hit echoed or anticipated in numerous other states where lawmakers are rolling out similar policies during an important election year.

Universities throughout Texas rushed to make changes after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law last year. On April 2, the president of the 52,000-student University of Texas at Austin — one of the largest college campuses in the U.S. — sent an email saying the school was shuttering the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and eliminating jobs in order to comply with the ban, which went into effect on Jan. 1.

More than 60 University of Texas at Austin staff members were terminated as a result of the law, according to the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors. The group said it compiled the list based on affected employees who had reached out and that the number could be greater. University officials declined to confirm the number of positions eliminated.

Officials at other schools, in response to inquiries from The Associated Press, indicated that a total of 36 positions were eliminated between Texas A&M University in College Station; Texas Tech University in Lubbock; Texas State University in San Marcos; The University of Houston; Sam Houston State University in Huntsville; and Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Officials said no one was let go; people were assigned to new jobs, some resigned and vacant positions were closed.

Earlier this week, University of Texas at Dallas officials announced that approximately 20 associate jobs would be eliminated in compliance with the law. University officials declined to comment on how many of those positions are currently filled.

Texas House of Representatives Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, applauded the University of Texas actions in a post on the social media platform X. “It is a victory for common sense and proof that the Legislature’s actions are working,” Phelan wrote.

Other states

Texas is among five states that have recently passed legislation targeting DEI programs. At least 20 others are considering it.

Florida was the first to implement a ban, last year, with the vocal backing of then-Republican presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis, who often derides DEI and similar diversity efforts as “woke” policies of the left. In response to the law, the University of Florida last month announced more than a dozen terminations.

Universities of Wisconsin regents reached a deal with Republican lawmakers in December to limit DEI positions at the system’s two dozen campuses in exchange for getting funds for staff raises and construction projects. The deal imposed a hiring freeze on diversity positions through 2026, and shifted more than 40 diversity-related positions to focus on “student success.”

Republican legislators who oppose DEI programs say they are discriminatory and promote left-wing ideology. Some are counting on the issue to resonate with voters during this election year. Democratic DEI supporters say the programs are necessary to ensure that institutions meet the needs of increasingly diverse student populations. Lawmakers from the party have filed about two dozen bills in 11 states that would require or promote DEI initiatives.

Texas’ anti-DEI law, which Abbott enthusiastically signed last year, prohibits training and activities conducted “in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” Additionally, the law, also known by its legislative title, SB17, forbids staff members from making hiring decisions that are influenced by race, sex, color or ethnicity, and prohibits promoting “differential” or “preferential” treatment or “special” benefits for people based on these categories.

SB17 states that the ban doesn't apply to academic course instruction and scholarly research. That's why professor Aquasia Shaw was so surprised to hear last week that her supervisor was not going to renew her contract. Shaw said she was not given a reason for the termination, but considering the timing, she suspects it's the new law.

Shaw taught courses on the intersection of sociology, sports and cultural studies in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Her faculty page on the university’s website states her focus as “sociology of sport and cultural studies, sport management and diversity, inclusion and social justice.” A course she taught this semester was titled Race and Sports in African American Life. But she said she had not been involved in any DEI initiatives outside of her teaching.

“I was under the impression that teaching and research was protected so ... I am trying to grapple with the idea and in denial that this can’t be the reason I was targeted,” she said.

In March, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton, who authored SB17, sent a letter to public university boards of regents across the state, inviting them to testify in May about the changes that have been made to achieve compliance. He included a warning that renaming programs, rather than changing their intent, would not be sufficient.

Creighton’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The law's impact was felt in Texas even before it went into effect. In anticipation, University of Texas at Austin officials last year changed the school's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to the Division of Campus and Community Engagement. The name change didn't save it — it was closed this month. School officials said some of the division's projects would be relocated, while others would be shut down. They did not provide specifics.

Shaw said she was the only person of color in her department. She said she saw on X that other university employees had been let go and began connecting with them. At least 10 of the other terminated faculty and staff members whom she contacted are also from minority groups, she said.

The loss of her job was a big blow to Shaw, who had already scheduled classes for this summer and fall. She said her superiors had previously told her they hoped to renew her contract.

“I am so disheartened to see that exactly what I was concerned about ended up happening anyway,” Shaw said.

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