Kirk McDaniel

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Texas public universities was passed by the state Senate on Wednesday night, sending the controversial legislation to the House for final approval.

Senate Bill 17 would prohibit mandatory diversity training for university employees, as well as eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion - often shortened to DEI – offices and officers. The bill would also require universities to hire employees “through the use of color-blind and sex-neutral hiring processes," though it does say they must adhere to federal and state non-discrimination statutes like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The bill imposes a high level of monitoring from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that oversees public universities in the state, as well as the Legislature and state auditors. Institutions would be required to prove they are in compliance with the law each year before spending state funds. Additionally, universities could lose funding for an entire fiscal year if they are found to have spent state dollars on DEI programs.

DEI initiatives promote the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds including minority racial groups, people who identify as LGBTQ, religious groups, veterans and people with disabilities. Many of these programs acknowledge historical discrimination that kept these groups out of places of higher learning and seek to provide resources to create greater access to opportunities.

Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe, authored SB 17. After over six hours of impassioned debate and consideration of the bill into Wednesday evening, Creighton urged his colleagues to pass the bill. He said diversity is a key feature that makes the state strong but argued DEI practices harm the goal of removing barriers for persons of color and women to have equal opportunities.

SB 17 would also prohibit universities from compelling current faculty or job candidates to provide diversity statements, which are often requested during the hiring process. Job applicants describe their experiences interacting with diverse populations as well as how they would create a diverse learning environment.

The bill’s author believes that such statements amount to a litmus test of candidates.

“We cannot support policies that exclude other Texans, or quite frankly, some of the best and brightest applicants to our universities from all over the world,” Creighton said. “In prohibiting those diversity statements we will end the practice of compelling speech, rather, fostering an environment of supporting free speech.”

Creighton claimed several times during the debate that DEI programs work against their stated goals and have not increased diversity on college campuses. The senator pointed to an incident involving Texas Tech University's biology department rating job applicants on their knowledge and interest in DEI, marking it as a weakness if they did not know or showed little interest in ways to promote diversity.

Rising to speak in opposition to SB 17, Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo, said the bill would restrict universities' ability to offer a truly diverse environment on their campuses.

“DEI offices on campus create an academic equalizer in society by attracting a diverse academic team to empower, through higher education, students of all backgrounds,” Zaffirini said. "What I believe is definitely clear is that the passage of Senate Bill 17 will be a giant step backward in our quest for equal opportunity and equal worth for all.”

Democratic Senator Royce West of Dallas also challenged Republicans on the bill, saying that neither he nor other members of color were included in helping craft the legislation.

“If we are doing this in order to increase diversity, why not bring us into the tent to get it done?” asked West. “All of your colleagues that are ethnic minorities in this chamber are saying the same thing to you – ‘it’s wrong’ – but you are not listening.”

The fight over DEI at public universities began earlier this year when Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office sent a letter to state agencies and public university leaders calling upon them to stop using such practices in the hiring process. Since the governor’s letter was received, several institutions have begun rolling back DEI policies.

Texas is one of the first states to advance an anti-DEI bill of this size and scope, but is not the only one considering such prohibitions. Republican-led states including Florida, Oklahoma and Iowa have proposed similar legislation.

SB 17 is just one of three bills in the Texas Senate that seek to overhaul how public colleges and universities operate and the decisions they are allowed to make. Senate Bills 16 and 18 are also aimed at culture wars issue in higher education.

Last week, Senate Republicans passed SB 16, which would prohibit faculty from compelling “a student enrolled at the institution to adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican and staunch supporter of the bill, said in a statement that SB 16 would ban critical race theory from state universities. CRT is a framework or lens often used in college classrooms to examine how inequalities persist through laws and institutions.

“This session, there was no question that we would ban the teaching of CRT in Texas universities,” Patrick said. “Liberal professors, determined to indoctrinate our students with their woke brand of revisionist history, have gone too far.”

Finally, SB 18, passed Thursday, would prohibit universities from offering future tenure appointments. Banning tenure at public universities in Texas has been a goal of Patrick’s after professors at the University of Texas at Austin adopted a resolution affirming their commitment to academic freedom and the right to teach topics related to race and gender.

Patrick called the professors “looney Marxists” in a March 2022 tweet and vowed to ban both CRT and tenure on college campuses.

The American Association of University Professors has come out in strong opposition to all three bills, saying that if signed into law, they would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and free expression on college campuses.

Additionally, the AAUP and professors who testified against the bills while they were in committee believe that Texas Universities would be left out of federal grant programs and be less attractive to educators seeking to teach and conduct research in the state, costing state institutions both money and talent.

All three bills passed out of the chamber along party lines. SB 16, 17 and 18 now go over to the House where the appetite to pass such legislation remains unclear.