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New higher ed laws lead to changes, concerns at Texas Tech and other state universities

Sarah Self-Walbrick/Texas Tech Public Media

Changes are underway at Texas Tech to comply with a pair of new laws recently passed by the state legislature that prohibits universities from having offices of diversity, equity and inclusion, and alters tenure practices.

The sweeping changes reverberating across campus are a result of efforts earlier this year by Republican lawmakers to overhaul higher education in the state, effectively sending it in a new direction. The bills, both passed by the 88th Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, represent wins for those critical of the way higher education has developed over the years.

While most day-to-day operations around campus have carried on as usual, affected departments have already made changes to comply with the new mandates. Tech President Lawrence Schovanec sent a memorandum last month to faculty, staff and students that outlined some changes.

The new arrangements include reassigning some entities previously housed under Tech’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to different departments that “better align with the audiences they serve,” according to the announcement. Schovanec said in the memo that, while the institution’s current operating policies for tenure don’t include language on summary dismissal as required by the new law, the administration was “working with the Faculty Senate and the Office of General Counsel to update” them.

What’s happened to DEI?

Texas is just one of the latest states to clamp down on DEI initiatives some believe grant unequal treatment and discriminate against students and professors with dissenting views. Proponents of DEI say its tenants ensure historically marginalized groups are fairly represented on college campuses and do not preclude inclusion for a particular ideological group.

In February, the hiring practices of one college at Tech came under scrutiny for requiring job candidates to issue diversity statements as part of its application process. Results from a Freedom of Information Act request showed that Tech’s Biology department adopted its own set of DEI practices, requiring job candidates to issue diversity statements during the process to indicate their understanding of and contributions to diversity initiatives.

The FOIA results were summarized and laid out by John Sailer, senior fellow for the National Association of Scholars, and published by the Wall Street Journal. Sailer’s article characterized diversity statements as effectively functioning as ideological litmus tests, leading Abbott’s office to issue a memo to the Employees Retirement System of Texas — the government agency that oversees teacher pensions — declaring DEI practices were illegal under state and federal anti-discrimination law.

“I was generally aware that Texas Tech was doing what it did... I just didn't realize that they explicitly called for a written [DEI] report on its job candidates,” Sailer said. “That's actually one reason why it's difficult to acquire these sorts of evaluations. Because often, they aren't written down and I basically caught them being a little bit sloppy about their work.”

The uproar caused by Sailer’s article swept in a tide of reactions, and days later Tech stopped departments from including DEI evaluations in their hiring processes. After DEI came into focus in the crosshairs of lawmakers, any of its former semblance on campuses across Texas became explicitly forbidden by the legislature.

At Tech, some programs and units have been diverted to a new office called “Campus Access and Engagement” and headed in the interim by Jorge Iber, a history professor and Associate Dean of the College of Art and Sciences. A separate memo from the Office of the President said Iber will help facilitate programs related to “student, staff, and faculty support and community outreach” in this new position.

What’s going on with tenure?

The idea of issuing changes that either weaken or eliminate tenure has long been held over the heads of professors who fervently commit themselves to advancement in their field in the hopes they’ll be rewarded with enhanced protections for their academic freedom. Those protections, while not absolute, are meant to grant instructors greater leeway to fulfill their core responsibilities like advancing research and transmitting knowledge.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made eliminating tenure at state universities a priority in response to a resolution issued by University of Texas faculty in Feb. 2022 that rebuked legislative efforts to dictate curriculum on racial and social justice in public schools. In a statement commemorating the passage of Texas’s new tenure law, Patrick said tenure appointments were being used by the professors “to continue blatantly advancing their agenda of societal division.”

As the American Association of University Professors sees it, receiving tenure at a university is a means to certain ends. Specifically, tenure grants instructors the ability to teach and research freely while also granting them a degree of economic security to attract the most capable candidates.

In the organization’s guiding doctrine on academic freedom and tenure, AAUP asserts that faculty who are divorced from “corporate or political pressure” while pursuing innovation and research are inherent to serving public interest.

AAUP’s statement of principles further articulates that tenure’s purpose is not meant to be wielded to quash dissent among the ranks of academics or their pupils, but rather to enshrine the sort of protections that encourage it.

“The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial,’” AAUP said in interpretive comments. “Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.”

Andrew Martin, professor of drawing and painting at Texas Tech’s School of Art, is president of the university’s AAUP chapter. He has taught at Tech for almost 28 years and said the local AAUP members were in close contact with the organization’s state conference as Republican initiatives worked their way through the legislative process.

Initial iterations of the tenure bill would have gutted tenure appointments in the state, but the final version passed this year focuses more on requiring a process for summary dismissal of tenured professors. The law also lays out what sort of behavior would be grounds for dismissal under its provisions.

While some parts of that section are innocuous, other portions are vague and difficult to interpret. The new policies on tenure require universities to include provisions that allow for the firing of a tenured faculty member if they are found to have engaged in “serious misconduct” that violates institutional policies.

For instance, a tenured faculty member can be let go from their position if they repeatedly fail to meet their professional responsibilities, exhibit incompetence, falsify their academic credentials or are convicted of a crime that affects their ability to “engage in teaching, research, service, outreach, or administration.”

Although there is little concern in the professorial community around these tenants, Martin said, many have lingering questions about other listed provisions for summary dismissal.

The law also provides schools an avenue for dismissal if a tenured faculty member fails to complete any post-tenure review professional development program, engages in conduct involving “moral turpitude” that adversely affects their institution, violates rules related to the performance of duties, or engages in “unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution or the faculty member's” ability to do their job.

Martin said the wording of the section having to do with failure to follow university policy leaves much to interpretation because there are many ways in which a professor might technically violate an institutional rule that would be very minor. Other portions don’t specify which administrator is ultimately responsible for determining if an infraction rises to the level of considering a dismissal, which he said is “absolutely essential” to clarify.

Other sections of the law mandate tenured faculty to undergo comprehensive performance evaluations periodically, also known as post-tenure reviews. Martin said Tech’s operating procedures already include a “generally effective” post-tenure review policy, and not much would need to be done to ensure compliance with that part of the law.

“Our administration I think did a really good job of at least getting us to a bill that makes a little bit more sense, because many people from the very beginning pointed out that if you eliminate tenure at Texas public universities, you are not going to get applicants that you really need and want,” Martin said. “And even if you just look at dollars, the loss of federal grants alone would be millions... because faculty typically are going to go to places where they feel like they have the protections of tenure.”

What are people saying about this?

Both of the newly passed laws affecting Texas campuses were introduced by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and passed both chambers without bipartisan support. In comments about the bill made on the Senate floor, Creighton said DEI initiatives run counter to their stated intentions.

“DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective, and they have been shown to be politically charged,” Creighton said in his remarks. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

On tenure, Creighton said the practice is “outdated and costly” that has led “a few vocal fringe tenured faculty” to hurt their respective institution's reputation without consequence, although he did not specify which institutions he was referring to.

These directives from the state government were deeply troubling to Martin, who said the abolition of DEI initiatives, in his view, opposes the most basic principles of educational fairness.

“For me, it's as much a protection for what could be considered radically conservative positions,” Martin said. “If I have a student in my classroom that is espousing what we would call conservative viewpoints — not necessarily politically — but just in terms of how they approach problem-solving and the art, it's not up to me to say that that's disallowed or wrong.”

In ideological terms, Martin said that liberalism needs conservatism as a counterbalance and vice versa. In his view, the idea that “liberal bias” is pervasive in higher education is not only unfounded but oxymoronic, as the textbook definition of liberalism is based on tolerance and openness to various viewpoints.

At times, Martin said he would hear ideological qualms about diversity statements when he served on faculty search committees. Candidates’ responses to these questions weren’t always included as a separate statement, which Martin said could be viewed as unnecessary, but they seemed appropriately weighted and some with personal views in opposition to DEI were ultimately hired in his experience on the committees.

“It's, to me, not the ideological litmus test that it's been referred to as,” Martin said. “It's more about job skills, particularly in teaching... so asking potential colleagues questions about that, always, and still does seem like a necessary part of the process.”

Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, who filed his own bill to prohibit schools from operating DEI offices, said diversity statement requests like the ones formerly required by Tech’s biology department function as loyalty oaths.

Although the guise of DEI “sounds great,” Tepper said he believes the term is a misnomer.

“The label has been kind of a woke agenda,” Tepper said. “Very kind of anti-American, anti-patriotic, and we took offense to a lot of the things that were going on in the universities. I believe that I can be for civil rights but still love my country and still love the way the country has turned out.”

A similar characterization of DEI appeared in a release published by the Young Conservatives of Texas outlining the group’s legislative priorities for the 88th Legislature. In that document, the group declared its support for defunding DEI departments “and other woke bureaucratic offices at public colleges.”

The National Association of Scholar’s Director of Research David Randall said in an email there are continual disputes over the extent of politicization in higher education. He said NAS believes higher education has been politicized and that the issue has “profoundly negative consequences.”

“DEI offices and diversity statements are part of the most serious challenge to the proper running to a university because they are more serious than ‘political interference,’” Randall said. “They are part of an attempt to reorient the university's mission and practice toward political activism, and to make political goals its standard operating procedure.”

Some students at Tech beg to differ. Christianah Adejokun, a first-year law student at Tech and former president of the Black Student Association, said she and her peers hope the progress made to cultivate a welcoming educational environment isn’t undone in one fell swoop.

“What DEI means to me is being in a space that cares [not just] for minority students, but all students overall,” Adejokun said. “The term is making sure that I have a community at my home away from home. Being able to have DEI values instilled in all that we do makes it feel more like an area where I can excel socially and academically as well.”

Others, like Avery Mendoza, a sophomore journalism major from El Paso, said DEI was important to them because of its tangible benefits for students. A member of the Tech Gender and Sexuality Association, Mendoza said opposition to DEI is short-sighted and misplaced.

“I think it’s about making sure everybody's represented,” Mendoza said. “It doesn't just say like, ‘This is the gay office,’ or ‘This is just the office for African Americans.’ It’s for everybody that’s been excluded. Any minority or marginalized group that doesn't feel like they're safe has an outlet to then go talk about their problems and feel safe at the university.”

Symbols of pride around campus are less visible this summer, and online resources for LGBTQIA+ students now redirect to Tech’s main website. Other links intended for accessing campus resources and student organizations related to diversity and inclusion have been blocked, and information related to the campus’s Black Cultural Center has also been scrubbed.

One person who spoke on the condition of anonymity said banning DEI offices outright set a bad precedent because lawmakers could have merely defunded the departments and let the institutions decide what to do next instead of taking the “draconian” initiative to ban them outright.

“I would not say that I was a proponent of that at all, but at least that would have left us with the opportunity at Texas Tech to where we could have gone out and raised funds from both alumni and private sources to help offset the losses that the state wouldn't allow us to use,” they said. “But now we're at a point where that's all moot. We can't even use these words, because there's so much legal implications behind it.”