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University of Texas Students Protest DEI Layoffs

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AUSTIN, Texas – Students at the University of Texas Austin campus disrupted a virtual meeting to protest mass administrator layoffs following the state’s ban on DEI. On April 15, roughly 200 scholars ambushed a meeting conducted by the university’s president Jay Hartzell. Each in front of a black background with the phrase “No DEI = Not Our Texas.”

Attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been sweeping the nation in recent years. Most commonly found in states with an overwhelming conservative majority like Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma are countless attempts to curtail affirmative action programs. Texas is no exception. 

In 2023, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 17 into law. The law bans higher education institutions from using race, ethnicity, or gender as influencing factors in the hiring process. It also prohibits training, activities and preferential treatment based on race, sexual orientation or gender. Colleges and universities must comply if they wish to receive state funding. 

On April 2, Hartzell announced that the Austin campus would dissolve the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and cease funding for DEI programs. Hartzell later confirmed the layoffs of nearly 60 faculty members because of the statewide DEI ban. A handful have been reassigned to other departments, while others have lost their position completely. However, this number does not reflect student employees who have also lost their jobs to the changes. 

Response From Texas Leadership

Texas’ Black Legislative Caucus has condemned the actions of UT’s president, stating they will continue to monitor the situation closely. “It is imperative that our higher education institutions prioritize creating environments where all individuals can thrive academically and professionally.”

The Texas NAACP has also spoken on the matter. “We call on University of Texas at Austin officials to be forthcoming about these terminations, their impact on University services to students and the community, and the provisions made to displaced staff, who until today had been assured that their positions were not in jeopardy.” 

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The NAACP partnered with the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to investigate potential infringements of First Amendment protections. 

UT Student and Staff Pushback

A letter from hundreds of students, staff and alumni to Hartzell, Vice President for Legal Affairs Amanda Cochran and Texas state Senator Brandon Creighton stated:

“The integrity of our campus has been compromised by the lack of transparency and over-compliance executed by UT Austin administration. As the head of these efforts, President Hartzell has not only devalued the prestige of a UT Austin degree, but he has also violated the trust between himself and our campus community when he decided to prioritize legislative agendas over student and staff success.

As an institution that seeks to provide its students a well-rounded educational experience, these changes undermine the honor of affirming this foundational promise. We now lack the ability to attract and retain top talent including faculty, students, and staff— corrupting the Longhorn experience.”

Concerned students at UT Austin

Creighton has instructed UT, and seven other state colleges, to present compliance progress at a hearing scheduled for May. 

The letter also includes a list of demands. One requests Hartzell’s participation in a town hall and to allow a student representative to speak during May’s hearing.

Students Speak Out

Karma Chávez, chair of UT’s Mexican American and Latina/o Studies spoke to NBC about the nature of the layoffs. Chávez stated that the majority of layoffs have affected mostly people of color. “Largely those are Black and brown, queer and trans folks,” said Chávez. “It really doesn’t feel like the university has the back of anyone who used to do this kind of work.”

Another student, Zion James, said the actions have decreased morale across campus. “It’s beyond Black and brown students. It’s also students who have disabilities who are sad. There are students who represent different genders and sexualities who are sad.”

Students announced an additional protest scheduled for April 25.

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