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KERA news and the Denton Record Chronicle are tracking the impacts of Texas' Senate Bill 17, the ban on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher education on schools, students and educators across North Texas.

DEI firings at Texas schools send ripples through faculty, students

A sign for the University of Texas at Dallas
UT Dallas and UT Austin have both announced layoffs this month in response to Senate Bill 17, the ban on DEI programs in public universities and colleges.

Texas and more than a dozen states — including Kansas just this week — have introduced legislative efforts to abolish or pare back diversity efforts in higher education and government offices.

In the Lone Star State earlier this month, more than 80 faculty members in two public universities were fired for their previous jobs in diversity, equity and inclusion departments (DEI).

And fear of the new law means public universities here are no longer funding LGBTQ events, such as Pride celebrations or cultural occasions including graduation ceremonies geared toward Black, Latino and Asian students.

The law, Senate Bill 17, took effect January 1, 2024, forcing changes at every state public university.

Before DEI departments even closed, schools rushed to reassign employees as college lawyers vetted compliance with the new law.

The author of SB 17, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton, was watching, and told KXAN TV in Austin didn’t like what he saw.

“DEI units have weaponized, in certain circumstances, themselves against other minority student populations and applicants," Creighton said. "Leftist political loyalty oaths, that is just not something that we can allow to be a requirement for new professors applying.”

KERA couldn’t find evidence of loyalty oaths Creighton spoke of. His office didn’t respond to requests for documentation.

And DEI offices helped students, too.

Creighton also grew concerned some colleges were simply changing the names of DEI departments to something else, which he called unacceptable.

“Essentially,” Creighton continued in the same interview, “we had a neon sign above the door of every HR department of every public university in the state, that said, ‘If you are a moderate to conservative, you need not apply here.’”

Creighton then sent chills through university offices: He sent a letter to public colleges and universities that he’ll hold a hearing in May on compliance with SB 17. Failure to adhere to the law could cost schools millions in state funding.

A week later, the University of Texas at Austin — the state’s flagship school — dismissed 66 people who’d worked in DEI departments.

“No one really saw it coming. . . (I was) very surprised," said Brian Evans, president-elect of the Texas conference of the American Association of University Professors. "So they’re actually firing. Those positions are not coming back.

“At least I didn't know it was coming. Nobody who received the termination notice knew it was coming. So total shock."

A week after that, UT Dallas announced it was laying off at least 20 employees who’d previously worked in DEI departments. This was months after president Richard Benson promised no one would lose their job because of the new law.

”There are some things that will continue maybe with a little bit of change,” Benson said in August. “And there are some things that maybe can’t continue. But one thing I’ve told all of my people is nobody is going to lose a job. I don’t want them worried about that.”

With the UT Dallas dismissals, faculty and staff now worry.

Vicky VanNest, executive director of the Texas Community College Teachers Association, said teachers have felt that harsh chill in class for a while now. She said the law does not explicitly ban curricula that touch on DEI, but she said professors are now afraid about its impact on both teaching and celebrations of people’s cultures. She said they’re afraid to teach topics a student — or lawmaker — might say follows some DEI agenda.

“I’ve gotten calls saying, ‘can I celebrate Black History Month? Can my library put up Hispanic Heritage Month books? Can I send my students to go do this extracurricular activity?’” VanNest said. “And the answer is maybe. Maybe not. I mean, it's a very fine line. Everything has to be looked at.”

Presidents of UT Austin and UT Dallas acknowledged strong feelings by staff and students regarding the DEI dismissals at their schools. Both urged fired workers to apply for other open positions.

Before these schools fired anybody, they’d already made changes prompted by SB 17. UT Austin ended its Monarch program that advised and mentored undocumented students. The University of North Texas canceled Pride Week celebrations in the library.

UT Austin junior Isabel Bellard, a first-generation college student, took the changes personally. She said she chose the school in part because of these programs that are now being dismantled. Bellard — who's half Black & half Mexican — said UT’s DEI programs, including orientation specifically for Black students, made her and others feel heard, and like the university cared about them. She mentored freshmen in a DEI program. Now, she’s angry.

“Students are starting to text us upperclassmen saying, ‘Hey, I'm kind of scared to go to UT now. It sounds like they don't want people like me there because they don't have programs for me,'" Bellard said. "And now we have the burden as upperclassmen trying to figure out, 'What do I tell them, the truth?' And tell them that, 'Hey, yeah, this university really doesn't care about us anymore.”

Data show Black and Hispanic students — who are among the most likely to use DEI programs — are already at a 10% to 20% or more higher risk of not finishing college compared to white students.

University of North Texas senior Rachel Zerr, a senator in student government, said minority students may pay an additional price after the shuttering of DEI departments.

“Without feeling comfortable and having, like, that sense of like 'hey, this school cares about me and there’s these resources, I can make friends easily,' then you’re going to lose out on educational opportunities,” Zerr said. “So I think taking it away could definitely impact, you know, students finishing school.”

As for the fired DEI staffers, some are now considering legal action, saying they were fired without due process.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.