North Texas Daily

Senate bill banning DEI offices threatens programs on campus as students, faculty oppose

Senate bill banning DEI offices threatens programs on campus as students, faculty oppose

Senate bill banning DEI offices threatens programs on campus as students, faculty oppose
June 07
15:00 2023

After months of anticipation and weeks of amendments and public discussion, the Texas Legislature’s passing of Senate Bill 17 has students and faculty worried about the future of several programs on campus.

SB 17, which was approved by the Texas House and sent to Gov. Greg Abbott to sign on May 28, would ban any “diversity, equity and inclusion office” on university campuses. Currently, the University of North Texas runs the office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access, and would be considered a DEI office under the new bill. The IDEA office also includes the university’s Pride Alliance and Multicultural Center.

“I think what’s happening now is there’s a lot of conversations about, ‘So what is gonna happen with this division?” said David Muñoz-Sarabia, Pride Alliance member and former Student Government Association vice president. “What is going to happen with these units underneath the division of IDEA? Are they gonna be merged into different departments, different divisions across the university?”

The bill also disallows universities from requiring training on diversity in the workplace except where required by law. In a statement sent to the North Texas Daily, the UNT System said the administration is “reviewing all legislation” passed by the Texas legislature and will continue to adhere to state and federal law.

University professors and organizations have expressed concern regarding how SB 17 will harm the university’s hiring practices, including retention and competing with out-of-state opportunities. In an interview with the Daily, UNT President Neal Smatresk confirmed the bill’s presence has already had an effect on potential hires.

“My bigger concern is recruiting faculty,” Smatresk said. “We’ve lost some candidates, that’s painful. We’ve lost some first choices. So hopefully this settles down and we get back to recruiting soon, but it’s hard right now to gauge the extent of concern.”

Smatresk also said the UNT System is meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss precise actions the university will take, but that no major decisions have been made. Faculty have not been made aware of how the legislation may affect them.

“I am waiting to hear more from UNT’s administration about how the legislation will impact [the Black Faculty Network] and other resource groups,” said Dorothy Bland, chair of the Black Faculty Network and journalism professor. “We are obviously concerned about recruitment, retention and opportunities for our increasingly diverse student population and the impact this legislation will have on faculty as well as staff.”

Dozens of professors from universities across Texas sent written comments to the Committee on Higher Education to oppose the bill, including several UNT professors. Many cited the university’s status as a tier-one research institution and Hispanic-serving institution.

A Hispanic-serving institution is defined as a higher learning institution that enrolls more than 25 percent Hispanic students, and opens up opportunities for grants and special programs for students and faculty. Of the 347 members of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, 62 of them are in Texas, the second most of the 28 participating states.

“The DEI work at UNT is foundational to our success in serving not only our students, but the Texas communities they go on to serve themselves,” Assistant Professor of Psychology Holly Levin-Aspenson said in her written comment. “Under SB 17, programming that is specifically targeted toward Hispanic students would be illegal, and so Texas institutions would lose [their HSI] designation and access to millions of dollars in federal grants.”

SB 17’s presence in the legislature throughout the spring semester, combined with a letter from the governor’s office that resulted in the shuttering of DEI hiring practices, has already disrupted several events and programs on campus. With the possible removal of the IDEA Office and Multicultural Center, events as early as April were being reconsidered, according to Black Student Union president and user experience senior Maurice Cruz. 

“So, at the time, still in April around early May [we were] really fearful that we would lose all that we’ve built,” Cruz said. “Not only the Multicultural Center, but Black Graduation, that was said to have gone away for a moment, and luckily we were able to bring it back and actually do it because the bill was still in its progression stage but it hadn’t passed. We were looking to lose that, and that was very devastating.”

Several future events are also in unclear states as the university works on its response to the bill. The Black Student Experience, a yearly event held for incoming Black students and transfer students to promote academic success and community, is still unscheduled and may not occur, according to Cruz. The Black Student Experience is hosted and funded by the Multicultural Center.

“We still need to figure out ways to welcome students because without BSE, then they come in and they don’t really recognize immediately a Black community unless they go out and look,” Cruz said.

Cruz said the BSU is looking to try to host a smaller event if the Black Student Experience cannot be held by the Multicultural Center, as SB 17 stipulates it does not affect activities hosted by student organizations.

UNT System Chancellor Michael Williams spoke at the Texas Legislature’s education committee about SB 17, and expressed his confidence in the five new UNT values supplanting the need for DEI offices. 

“’Better Together’ is a parameter, a guardrail if you will, for how our culture operates,” Williams said. “So as a result, we have five campus locations with three universities, and only one of those actually has DEI offices. The rest of them have functioned in a very highly-functioning environment around building around a culture of DEI without the specificity of an office.”

No official announcements have been made by the university in response to SB17 or the other bills affecting higher education such as SB18.

“At the end of the day, what I hold out in front of me and every single person who works in our leadership team is what is our issue?” Smatresk said. “Why are we here? And if we preface every decision we make with that conversation, then we’re gonna be okay regardless of legislation, regardless of any individuals. What’s our job? Our job is to change people’s lives and give them a chance of having a better life.”

Featured Image: The front entrance to the Division of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access office in the Hurley Administration Building on June 2, 2023.
Lauren Campbell.

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Ayden Runnels

Ayden Runnels

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