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Students accuse UT Austin of 'over-implementing' state ban on diversity, equity and inclusion

People sit at tables with laptops facing a screen that says, "How are we all feeling about the DEI ban?" with a QR code
Lorianne Willett
KUT News
People listen during a DEI teach-in hosted by members of UT Austin's former Multicultural Engagement Center last week. The university closed the MEC because of a new state anti-diversity, equity and inclusion law.

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When students at a teach-in on UT Austin’s campus were asked how they felt about Texas’ ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public universities, the top three responses were “angry,” “disappointed” and “frustrated.”

Larenz Harrington said he felt “voiceless.”

For him, the closing of the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center meant his younger brother wouldn't get the chance to experience the same supportive space he had.

“When you remove diversity, inclusion and equity, it makes the area for people that look like us so much smaller, because you tell us we're not welcomed here,” said Harrington, a fourth-year arts and entertainment technologies student.

UT closed the MEC when Senate Bill 17 — which prohibits DEI offices, programs and trainings in Texas public universities – went into effect Jan. 1. The center served students for 36 years and housed six university-sponsored student groups: Afrikan American Affairs, Latinx Community Affairs, Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, Native American and Indigenous Collective, Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color and Allies, and Students for Equity and Diversity.

Student leaders said they were notified the MEC would be closing only a day before the DEI ban took effect.

In an email to KUT, the university said it will “consider how to best use the space as part of the Powers Student Activity Center to continue building community for all Longhorns.” It refused to comment further.

The university also discontinued Monarch, a program that helped undocumented students, as well as those who have temporary status and come from mixed-status families. Some of its services included advising, offering scholarships and providing mental health support.

Student representatives from these organizations hosted a teach-in last week to discuss the challenges they’ve faced since the ban. They said SB 17 was being “over-implemented” at UT. For example, students said Monarch’s services were “implemented without regard to race, sex, color or ethnicity,” complying with exceptions to SB 17 listed by the UT System.

"This is discrimination. This is not just a lack of support from the university. … Without the accessible connection to these resources, indigenous people will continue to be discriminated against and even more invisible."
Kennedy Cortez, co-director of the Native American and Indigenous Collective

“While we are complying with the new law and policy, many things will not change — including our commitment to attracting, supporting and retaining exceptional talent across diverse backgrounds and perspectives, celebrating the collective strength of our community, and fostering a sense of belonging for all Longhorns,” UT President Jay Hartzell said in an email to students, faculty and staff in December.

To continue the MEC groups’ work, former staff agreed to make them official student organizations — independent from UT. No longer university-sponsored, the groups will not get financial support from UT to organize events and programming, such as cultural graduation ceremonies that celebrate the achievements of underrepresented students. Some of these groups are trying to raise $8,000 each on GoFundMe.

Kennedy Cortez, co-director of the Native American and Indigenous Collective, said the anti-DEI law makes it more difficult for Native American students — who make up 0.1% of the UT student population — to access their history, cultural practices and language.

“This is discrimination,” Cortez said. “This is not just a lack of support from the university. … Without the accessible connection to these resources, indigenous people will continue to be discriminated against and even more invisible.”

Several campus facilities have been renamed or replaced since the bill passed, including the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is now the Women’s Community Center. The MEC was not given the same option, according to a joint statement by the center’s former groups on Feb. 2. As of early March, the university has not responded to students’ demands for a formal explanation of why it suddenly closed the center.

Isma Khokhar, one of the presenters at the teach-in, joined the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective during her freshman year. She said she considered the MEC her home. She said SB 17 has made university staff more cautious about reserving spaces for ADPAC’s larger events, which has mostly featured Asian American food, music and the arts.

“We are trying to reach out to local communities to see who can help us, but as of right now, because we are run by students, it's hard to navigate that,” Khokhar said.

Student leaders from Rooted, an on-campus organization that advocates for undocumented students and their families, said UT initially informed the Monarch staff the program would be exempt from SB 17. UT’s lawyers later said Monarch’s services were based on race and gender, which led to its abrupt closure on Jan. 1, according to a statement from Rooted.

Student presenters at the teach-in said the students that Monarch served came from various racial backgrounds and genders. Monarch staff were not given the opportunity to make adjustments to comply with the DEI ban, students said. Students have also not received a statement from the university.

Flores, a Rooted member and former Monarch student representative who asked to be identified only by her surname because of her status, said spaces like the MEC and Monarch were founded through student activism. She said the organizations will keep fostering a safe community for minority students despite threats to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Students fought really, really hard to get these spaces, and the work will continue,” Flores said. “We will not be silenced. We pay our tuition. We deserve spaces like this. And we are not going to allow them to just take these resources that are so vital for a college career away like that.”

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