Texas rows back on tenure changes but DEI ban voted through

Faculty groups say ‘we are already seeing staff and faculty leaving the state’ in response to proposed legislation

May 30, 2023
Source: iStock

Texas legislators have approved changes in tenure practices at the state’s public colleges and universities that enshrine the process in state law. While many faculty leaders view the changes as troublesome, they are still relieved, because it stopped short of an earlier plan – endorsed by a vote in the Senate – of eliminating tenure entirely.

Now both the House and the Senate have approved the legislation. It must still be signed by Governor Greg Abbott, which he is expected to do without further changes.

A conference committee of House and Senate members has also agreed on a measure, previously passed by both houses, to eliminate offices for diversity, equity and inclusion at the state’s universities.

The bill, in its new form, would bar universities from having diversity offices, creating diversity offices, hiring employees to conduct DEI work or requiring any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “colour-blind and sex-neutral”. The bill would also bar universities from asking job candidates to provide written answers about how they consider diversity in their work.

If the bill becomes law, which is expected, Texas will join Florida in banning DEI activities at the state’s public universities.

The tenure bill, as it emerged in the Senate, was a major goal of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican. (While the position of lieutenant governor is weak in many states, in Texas the position has significant influence, particularly in the Senate).

As originally passed in the Senate, the measure would have barred public colleges and universities from granting tenure in the future, but would not have stripped tenure from professors who had already received it.

The measure was opposed not just by faculty groups, but also by groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (Fire).

In the end, tenure survived in the legislature because the House preferred the idea of reforming it, not eliminating it. In fact, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, had 20 bills that reflected his top priorities, and tenure reform was not among them.

Under the final bill, responsibility for evaluating tenure and tenured professors would rest with university boards, which would have to outline how they grant tenure, how they evaluate tenured faculty and the reasons a tenured professor can be terminated, such as professional incompetence, “conduct involving moral turpitude” or unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution, according to The Texas Tribune.

A statement released by the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said the conference viewed the legislation as problematic, but much better than the original Senate bill.

The statement said: “We are concerned with dangerously broad grounds for termination in the bill as well as the lack of the due process provisions recommended by the AAUP and adopted by more than 1,300 colleges and universities nationally, including many in Texas. Nevertheless, the legislation passed by the House and Senate improves dramatically on the original bill, and we are grateful to the legislators, faculty, staff, students and professional organizations whose work contributed to the amended bill.”

Also quoted in the statement was Brian Evans, vice-president of the Texas AAUP Conference, who said, “Tenure is a vital protection of the academic freedom for professors to develop, discuss and share knowledge from all viewpoints, including conservative, moderate, liberal and apolitical. A meaningful tenure system protects academic freedom in teaching, research and expression, provides for long-term stability, and includes due process protections and procedures for professors undergoing review.”

The bill against DEI offices largely followed the rhetoric opposing diversity offices in other states.

Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican, said, according to The Texas Tribune, that “DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged…Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

The legislation was opposed by faculty and student groups.

The Texas AAUP said: “The bill sends a clear message to students, faculty and staff that our state is not committed to welcoming students from all backgrounds and to building a public higher education system that is truly inclusive and supportive of all.”

The statement concluded: “We are already seeing staff and faculty leaving the state in response to proposed anti-DEI legislation, and anticipate this trend to be magnified in the years ahead. This is a giant step backwards for our diverse state of Texas.”

Another group, Texas Students for DEI, said in a statement: “The implementation of DEI offices and practices may be banned within institutions of higher education, but the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion can never be removed from us, the people. Our individual and collective presence in the state of Texas – exemplified by our growing and thriving communities of women, people of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, and disabled people – is living proof that DEI is here to stay! While conservative lawmakers fight to maintain their status quo, we, the people, recognize and appreciate the value in diverse perspectives.”

The group added: “We stand in unwavering solidarity with our fellow students whose identities are being unjustly politicized and policed. We offer our wholehearted support to the faculty and staff members whose livelihoods are now at risk due to their dedication to DEI and academic freedom.”

This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed

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