AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Republican-led effort to reshape Texas’ higher education during the regular legislative session was a partial success: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices will be shut down under SB 17, but the attempt to ban tenure for professors (SB 18) only garnered restrictions on the practice. SB 16, an attempt to ban “critical race theory” (CRT), stalled out in the House of Representatives higher education committee.

SB 17 weakens the power of university administration, while SB 18 increases the power of administration over professors’ jobs.

Unless vetoed by Governor Greg Abbott, SB 17 goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, and SB 18 on Sept. 1, 2023.

NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) assistant counsel Antonio Ingram said his team is monitoring the impact of SB 17 and SB 18, as well as watching for a potential resurgence of SB 16 during a special legislative session. The LDF doesn’t currently have plans to litigate against Texas over the bills.

“It shows that there is a preference to support certain ideologies on these campuses that may not reflect the opinions of the professors and student bodies that are being served in these places,” said Ingram about the bills. “I think about this attack on diversity, equity and inclusion, this attack on tenure — this was not student-led, this was not professor-led. This was by the political leadership expressing their preferences. This is a solution in search of a problem.”

Tenure remains, but weakened

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell said in an email to faculty and staff that he was pleased by the passage of SB 18.

“Tenure is about protecting the academic freedom of our faculty so we can meet our shared and essential mission of advancing knowledge through free inquiry, research, and publishing and disseminating our work,” Hartzell said. “It is not, nor has it ever been, about protecting the very few who do not meet their obligations or who engage in serious misconduct. The bill confirms that due process protections for tenure remain. And we remain confident in our ability to recruit and retain top talent and fulfill our constitutional mandate to be a ‘university of the first class.'”

However, Ingram predicts SB 18 will have a chilling effect on academic speech in Texas.

“It’s really concerning because part of academic freedom allows professors to boldly pursue research and academic disciplines that may not be favorable by the leadership of an institution or even a state,” Ingram said. “Senate Bill 18 represents a climate of surveillance…the fear that experts in their fields might come to a place like Texas under the purview of a law like Senate Bill 18 that would really hamstring the ability for them to have inclusive and accurate educational environments to teach in.”

Texas A&M associate professor Adam Kolasinski previously spoke with KXAN about the original language of SB 18 from his perspective as a conservative. The new language, he said, lacks “meaningful due process to prevent abuse” by university administrators.

“The only due process in the bill is a hearing in front of an administrator who reports to the very same university leadership that wants to see the faculty member fired,” Kolasinski said.

He added universities might prevent such abuse by creating precise rules around what actions are unprofessional conduct and faculty committees to conduct hearings in addition to a hearing before an administrator.

“Texas A&M currently lacks such rules and processes, though there are efforts underway to create them, and I have been involved with them as a Faculty Senator over the last two years. I will continue pressing for them,” Kolasinski said. “These reforms are much needed because tenured faculty can and have been fired for unpopular opinions under pretexts such as ‘unprofessional conduct.'”

DEI offices to close

Hartzell said despite “clarity on the issue of tenure,” the impact of SB 17 would be “more complex.”

“We are actively working to understand and assess the rest of our landscape, the contours of the new legal framework, and how the UT System will implement its oversight under the new legislation,” said Hartzell in his email. “While I can imagine there is uncertainty and anxiety regarding the future, I ask for your patience as we begin this work and await further guidance based on UT System policy later this summer.”

According to Hartzell’s predictions, these changes will not impact UT Austin’s “commitment to attracting, supporting and retaining exceptionally talented staff, faculty and students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and fostering and celebrating diversity across our community.”

Ingram said eliminating DEI staff and offices “sends a message” to marginalized students.

“It sends a message that students who do not fit a majoritarian aesthetic or identity do not have the same sense of belonging in these spaces,” Ingram said. “During a House hearing on Senate Bill 17, an African American legislator spoke up and talked about how she grew up in segregation and how she sees these moves to dismantle policies, which were meant to effectuate true integration, now being used to divide people in a harmful way, in a way that she feels is going to lead to a less cohesive and diverse society for her grandchildren.”