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Texas House may revise anti-diversity legislation to allow some programs to maintain grants, federal funding

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

Texas House may revise anti-diversity legislation to allow some programs to maintain grants, federal funding” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas public universities would be able to establish or keep diversity programs in certain circumstances if state lawmakers approve a rewrite of a bill that sets out to ban equity and inclusion offices, according to a version of the reworked proposal obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The House Higher Education Committee is expected to review the new language — proposed by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin — for the legislation, known as Senate Bill 17, on Monday. The amended bill reviewed by the Tribune has not previously been made public.

The bill, a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would still ban DEI offices and programs and prohibit required diversity training for students or faculty, but university system leaders would be able to approve such programs if they determine it complies with state and federal law, or if a federal grant or higher education accrediting agency requires such programs.

Faculty have vocally warned that if this legislation passes, it might put its universities at risk of losing federal and private grants because they often require applicants to show how they are considering diversity and equity in their work. Kuempel chairs the House Higher Education Committee and is carrying the legislation. He did not respond to a request for comment.

This version of the bill would replace the version the Senate approved last month. When the Senate voted out its version of the bill, they added an amendment that the legislation would not affect course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions.

Diversity, equity and inclusion offices have become a mainstay on college and university campuses across the country as schools try to boost faculty diversity and help students from all backgrounds succeed. Those who support their existence on college campuses argue the legislation will make schools less welcoming places to work and study, turn back efforts to correct past discrimination and stall progress to make universities better reflect state demographics. Yet critics accuse DEI programs of pushing left-wing ideology onto students and faculty and of prioritizing social justice over merit and achievement.

University leaders have been largely quiet in public about how this legislation might impact their schools. But one Texas university administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain a productive relationship with state lawmakers, said there is a desire for clarity about what DEI programs or practices are acceptable.

“We are so tired of being a sitting duck for right-wing bloggers” to dig up examples of a lecture, program or comment they disagree with and use it to attack the university on social media.

This week, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank who is credited for igniting the public debate over critical race theory, tweeted multiple documents he’s pulled from UT-Austin’s website in which he believed the school was “indoctrinating” students with DEI programs and policies. He previously posted documents that led Texas Tech University to review its hiring policies after he showed the school’s biology department was rating job candidates based on their commitment to building diversity on campus. On Friday, he signaled again on Twitter that he would continue to post more in a series about the “DEI bureaucracy in the Lone Star State’s public universities.”

This new version of the legislation also would still ban universities from asking job candidates to share how they would foster welcoming classroom environments or how they consider working with diverse groups of students. These answers are often called “diversity statements.” Critics have argued they are political litmus tests that have been improperly used to weed out candidates who don’t subscribe to certain political ideas. Some universities, including The Texas A&M University System, have already prohibited such statements after Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to state agencies warning them not to consider anything but merit in hiring.

But the House version does include other changes that walk back some of the more draconian pieces of the Senate’s version. It removes a requirement that universities must approve any policies that reference race, color and ethnicity with the attorney general and removes a portion of the bill that would allow the attorney general to sue accreditation agencies if they take action against a school for complying with the law. It also loosens requirements that board members must make up the majority of a presidential search committee.

It also adds in two paragraphs of language from Senate Bill 16, which Patrick has characterized as the bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in higher education. The two paragraphs pulled from that legislation state that a higher education institution must commit to creating an environment of “intellectual inquiry and academic freedom” and “intellectual diversity” so all students are respected.

It’s unclear what this addition means for the fate of Senate Bill 16, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House. The deadline for the House to vote Senate bills out of committee is May 20.

While the future of the legislation prohibiting DEI in public universities is unclear, the House signaled it would support a prohibition of DEI programs when it approved the state budget, which included a provision that would not allow state funds to be used toward DEI programs on college campuses.

There are still many chances for lawmakers to make changes to Senate Bill 17 before the end of session. If it passes through the House Higher Education Committee, representatives can still amend it on the House floor. If the House passes the bill and there are differences from the Senate version, it will go into conference committee, where a group of lawmakers from both chambers will try to come to a consensus on the bill.

The higher education committee also is scheduled to hear testimony on a bill Monday that would ban tenure in public universities. The legislation is also expected to include changes from the Senate version.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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