Messages scrawled onto poster boards stated that diversity is not a crime and that attacks on it “have got to stop.”
“No hate! No fear! DEI is welcome here,” chanted about two dozen students at the University of Texas at Arlington, who gathered to protest what they called an “attack on diversity programs” on Wednesday.
Sophomore Lesly Torres Guerrero, a Progressive Student Union member, used a megaphone to say what’s at stake for public universities across Texas as officials roll back policies aimed at diversifying campuses.
The moves follow Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s memo forbidding diversity, equity and inclusion policies in employment at state agencies and universities.
But lawmakers are “not providing support for communities that historically have been criminalized [and] discriminated against,” Torres Guerrero, 19, said.
UT-Arlington officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The University of Texas System responded to Abbott’s directive at the end of February by announcing it is suspending all new DEI policies at its schools, including UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington and UT-Southwestern Medical Center. Other systems, such as Texas A&M University, Texas State University and the University of Houston, shortly followed by removing DEI language in hiring and admissions.
Students and faculty across Texas universities voiced concerns on the consequences this could have on educational quality and faculty research.
In a recent memo, Abbott’s office warned that DEI initiatives violate anti-discrimination laws by favoring “some demographic groups to the detriment of others.”
“Rather than increasing diversity in the workplace, these DEI initiatives are having the opposite effect and are being advanced in ways that proactively discriminate in the workplace,” the memo read.
Karma Chavez, a UT-Austin Latino studies professor, recently said that assuming all people get hired with a DEI lens is inaccurate. Chavez is on the executive committee of the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter.
“Nobody just gets hired because they are a specific race or background,” Chavez said. “They get hired because they bring something to that department that’s needed.”
At UT-Austin, nearly 78% of full-time professors are white; 10.5% are Asian; about 6% are Hispanic or Latinx; and nearly 4% are Black or African American, according to the university’s 2020 DEI data.
DEI policies and programming vary widely from first-year interest groups to welcome groups, Chavez noted. All of these have a common goal of making students and faculty feel understood, she added.
“They’re designed to help people feel like they belong so that they can get an education,” she said. “If we don’t, I see there being issues with student performance and retention.”
At UT-Arlington, diversity in faculty helps foster a better educational environment, said Tony Pham, a junior studying architecture.
Turning away from such hiring policies puts universities at a disadvantage by impacting the quality of education, he added. Various perspectives and experiences offer students a more enriched education, Pham said.
Kevin Eltife, chairman of the UT System’s board of regents, said last month that “certain DEI efforts have strayed from the original intent to now imposing requirements and actions that, rightfully so, has raised the concerns of our policymakers about those efforts on campuses across our entire state,” the Austin American-Statesman reported.
But some worry that “DEI” is just another buzzword used by politicians who don’t fully understand what it encompasses.
Vox Jo Hsu, a UT-Austin professor of rhetoric and writing, said the term is about much more than race or gender.
“DEI actually encompasses a vast number of programs around campus, including programs that support veterans, people with disabilities, first-generation college students, working class students and religious minorities,” Hsu said.
The professor worries that rolling back policies will impact grants, research and teaching as DEI is “pretty much central to making sure that the university is able to do its job.”
For example, faculty members are hired on the basis of their expertise, and many professors’ work and research is within fields adjacent to DEI efforts, Hsu added.
Many worry about faculty leaving state institutions due to the policy changes.
After the UT-Arlington students rallied in front of the E.H. Hereford University Center, the group walked over to the administration building to hand off a list of demands.
They want UT-Arlington President Jennifer Cowley to make a statement on different bills up for debate in the Legislature — including those that would restrict transgender college athletes as well as those that would ban critical race theory and DEI policies in higher education.
Critical race theory is an academic framework that probes the way policies and laws uphold systemic racism, such as in education, housing and criminal justice.
Students also want UT-Arlington to have an administrative plan to combat such moves.
Upon reaching Cowley’s front office, a staff member told the group that she was at the state Capitol. The students decided to call the president’s office to leave voicemails about their demands.
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