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UNT will shift DEI work, new center into student affairs to comply with statewide ban

University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk said the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and programs are being rolled into student affairs.
Shelby Tauber
/
For The Texas Tribune
University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk said the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and programs are being rolled into student affairs.

In a Friday morning message to students, faculty and staff, University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk said the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and programs are being rolled into student affairs.

The letter said the university’s plans will allow administrators to comply with Senate Bill 17, which bans DEI offices, initiatives and programs in Texas public universities, while continuing to serve people of color and LGBTQ+ students and efforts among faculty and staff.

“Today, we are moving forward with steps to continue to support all our students as we comply with Senate Bill 17, which creates a new Texas law prohibiting universities from having a DEI office, or employees or third-party agencies who perform the duties of a DEI office, and from engaging in certain activities related to DEI,” Smatresk said in his email addresses to students, faculty and staff.

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

University-led programs can’t legally reference race, sexual orientation or gender identity. Student organizations, however, will be able to coalesce around those identities.

UNT is a minority-majority campus and is designated as both a Minority-Serving and Hispanic-Serving Institution. Smatresk explained that the university will create “a new structure” that will incorporate the staff and future work of the Multicultural Center and Pride Alliance as part of the student engagement area of UNT Student Affairs.

After Texas lawmakers passed the controversial bill during the 88th Legislature, a number of state universities planned to comply with the law by changing the names of their DEI offices and programs, or by shifting the staff members who have been working in DEI offices to different divisions and programs at their schools.

The heavily Republican Texas Legislature might be bent on eliminating the offices, but Texas public universities have signaled that they can’t afford to defund or abandon their outreach to an increasingly diverse state and a prospective student body that is increasingly nonwhite.

The state Senate bill followed UNT’s commitment to increase the number of Hispanic graduate students and research faculty by 2023 last year. UNT joined 19 other Tier One universities to attract more Hispanic students into graduate programs through the newly formed Alliance for Hispanic Serving Research Universities in 2022.

Smatresk’s message indicates that student organizations will increasingly direct the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion work through student-led organizations that will develop activities and programming.

“While we are changing the structure of some of our work, UNT’s commitment to helping all students succeed remains foundational to our mission,” Smatresk said. “Through the creation of a new Center for Belonging and Engagement that complements our student engagement area, we will continue to support the success of our students and provide opportunities for connection, involvement, and belonging that empower our students to thrive.”

Smatresk said the university will give more resources and will dedicate staff members to support student organizations.

“In aligning with the requirements of this new law, UNT will continue to support all students, including our first-generation, low-income, and underserved students,” Smatresk said in the letter. “We will ensure any university-developed programs or activities are designed and implemented without reference to race, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”