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House signals readiness to fight Senate over bills to ban tenure, diversity efforts at Texas universities

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

House signals readiness to fight Senate over bills to ban tenure, diversity efforts at Texas universities” 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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Over the past year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been the bull rampaging through higher education’s china shop, trying to end faculty tenure, stop the teaching of critical race theory and vanquish university offices for diversity, equity and inclusion.

This week, House members signaled they’d like to at least save some of the stemware.

During a marathon hearing Monday that bled into the early morning hours of Tuesday, many members of the House higher education committee made it clear they were unwilling to advance Senate Bills 17 and 18 as they emerged from the upper chamber, but acknowledged the political reality that some versions will likely pass this session.

In that case, the big unknown becomes what happens when negotiators from both chambers try to hash out the differences before sending the bills to Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We are the House committee on higher education, and I’ll stress house committee on higher education,” committee chair Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, said when Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin, asked him if they would defend the House bill in that situation. “And we will fight.”

Kuempel, who is carrying the bills in the House, offered his own revised versions of the legislation, which would dial back Patrick’s vision of how higher education should operate.

Rather than eliminating tenure, Keumpel’s version of SB 18 would codify tenure in state law. And while his version of SB17 would still eliminate most DEI offices and programs, it would give universities wiggle room to allow them in some circumstances.

The differences set up a potentially fierce debate between the two chambers if the full House goes along with Kuempel’s versions. The House has until May 20 to vote Senate bills out of committee.

Many faculty and students who stayed through the wee hours of the House committee hearing said the House versions of the bills are themselves problematic, and urged the committee not to move forward with either.

Committee Democrats largely characterized the legislation as unnecessary but were sympathetic to Kuempel’s attempt to rein in Patrick’s crusade against who he calls “woke” academics.

“This is a solution looking for a problem. I said that and I believe that,” Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said of Patrick’s tenure-ending bill. “But I do think there’s actually a problem that this [committee substitute] is trying to solve and that is the original bill. This is a political process … And we have to be practical and cognizant of that as well as we’re trying to figure out how to maneuver through this.”

The tenure fight

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, described tenure as “outdated” and said it allows faculty to ruin the “brand” of a university when he laid out his bill to ban it on the Senate floor last month.

Kuempel had a different take at this week’s House hearing.

“I personally believe tenure needs to be offered,” he said, saying it “forced competition.”

His version of the bill would define tenure as “the entitlement of a faculty member of an institution of higher education to continue in the faculty member’s academic position unless dismissed by the institution for good cause in accordance with the policies and procedures adopted by the institution.”

University regents would have to clearly lay out how they grant tenure and how they evaluate tenured faculty, plus spell out when a professor could be fired, including reasons such as “professional incompetence,” “conduct involving moral turpitude” or “unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution.” Kuempel’s bill also states that tenure would create a property interest equivalent to one year’s salary.

Scores of faculty from universities across the state testified Monday that universities already have rigorous systems in place to grant and revoke tenure. And the policies spelled out in the bill are vague and could be easily weaponized to fire faculty who say or do something state or university leaders disagree with, they said, a situation which tenure was established to protect faculty from.

“Codifying the process opens the door to micromanaging and contains open-ended language that can lead to abuses,” said Daniel Brinks, government department chair at the University of Texas at Austin. “We can’t keep tenure and empty it of meaning. That’s not going to fool anyone.”

Professor after professor testified that Patrick’s proposal to eliminate tenure has already put Texas universities at a disadvantage in the competitive hiring arena.

Brinks said he made six job offers this spring. Not a single person accepted. And a professor in his department is leaving at the end of the year. Everyone cited tenure as a reason.

Ultimately, not a single person testified in support of Creighton or Kuempel’s versions.

Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, told those at the hearing that he did not think “minds have been made up” on the bill, specifically noting that he found it “troublesome” that the state would reduce the worth of a tenured faculty member to one year’s salary.

“I don’t think that adequately represents the skill or effort, energy, education which has earned [someone] the right to serve on faculty at a world-class institution,” he said.

“A chilling effect”

When Kuempel laid out his version of the bill to ban diversity, equity and inclusion offices, trainings and required programs, he did not denounce these efforts with as much ideological vigor as Republicans in the Senate, but he did call DEI programs “divisive” and said universities need clarity on what types of programs are acceptable.

“There’s too much ambiguity, and governing boards are confused on how to move forward,” Kuempel said at the hearing.

The House version of SB 17 would still eliminate most diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programs, though it would allow them if needed to comply with accrediting agency rules or federal grant requirements.

Faculty members who testified said if Texas bans DEI offices, the caveats won’t be enough to convince grantors that the state is committed to creating inclusive and diverse teaching and research environments.

“There’s no way when we get reviewed [grantors will say], ‘Hey, look, Texas just banned DEI offices but … this grant that has a DEI component? We know they’re going to be committed to it,’” said John Hagan, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “Our ability to get grants will be hurt.”

More than 100 faculty and students waited hours on Monday to tell lawmakers why they believe DEI programs should remain on campus. These programs have become increasingly common as efforts to empower underrepresented students to be more academically successful, broaden the recruitment of students from various backgrounds, better retain those students and build welcoming communities in which to work and learn.

“That is what DEI is about: celebrating our differences and creating an environment that fosters success for these students, regardless of their background or circumstances,” said UT-Austin student Sameeha Rizvi.

But critics of DEI programs, Patrick most notably, say they push left-wing ideology onto students and faculty.

“Like the wrong social media post, laugh at the wrong joke, ask the wrong question in class, you can get into trouble,” said Daniel Bonevac, a professor at UT-Austin who was invited to speak and was one of few people who testified in support of SB 17.

Multiple university leaders asked to testify said that if the bill passed, it would require schools to take a different approach to support the increasing student diversity that already exists.

“The progress can be a long arc,” said LaToya Smith, vice president of diversity and community engagement at UT-Austin. “So when there is legislation, a bill that can be interpreted or potentially prevent or have potential implications that we are trying to navigate, there could be a chilling effect.”

University system chancellors who testified tried to reassure lawmakers they would not shirk their responsibility to help all students succeed and pledged to continue the work to make their campuses welcoming places for students, as they tried to toe the political line between the competing visions for higher education among state leaders.

But Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, pushed back against the leaders’ muted response to the legislation’s impact on their schools and students.

“We’re not politically naive … I understand it’s a difficult position for you all to be in,” she told the chancellors. “But I also don’t want to erase that there’s lots of fear and concern about what could potentially happen. So, yes, you say you’re gonna continue to operate. But I think that language does matter, right, in all contexts … If we start saying you can’t say words like diversity anymore, where does someone who looks like me go to get supports if I don’t know the ambiguous word in which we’re naming things?”

Both bills were left pending in committee.

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