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UT Austin lays off around 60 staffers to comply with Texas DEI ban

People walking around and on steps at a college campus in front of a tower
Michael Minasi
/
KUT News
UT Austin is shutting down the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and cutting around 60 jobs.

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UT Austin has eliminated multiple staff positions previously focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in the latest effort to comply with Texas' anti-DEI law.

Around 60 staffers were laid off Tuesday, according to the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors and the Texas NAACP.

Senate Bill 17, which bans Texas public universities from having DEI programs and trainings, went into effect Jan. 1. At the beginning of the year, UT Austin closed its Multicultural Engagement Center, which housed student groups like Latinx Community Affairs, the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, and Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color and Allies. It also shut down Monarch, a program that offered support and scholarships to undocumented students. Members of these groups say they have struggled to continue their organizations' work on campus.

On Tuesday, the university went a step further and announced it is closing the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and laying off some employees who had previously worked on DEI.

"The new law has changed the scope of some programs on campus, making them broader and creating duplication with long-standing existing programs supporting students, faculty, and staff," President Jay Hartzell wrote in an email to the UT community.

To "reduce overlap" and "optimize" resources, Hartzell said UT Austin will move some of the programs DCCE manages to other parts of the university. It will also reassign some employees to other duties, while laying off others.

Forty of the 60 layoffs came from DCCE, the Texas AAUP and NAACP said.

"At the time when they were issued pink slips, all terminated employees were no longer in DEI-related positions," the two groups said. "Therefore, these terminations clearly are intended to retaliate against employees because of their previous association with DEI and speech that they exercised prior to their current assignments."

The groups also accused the university of racial and ethnic discrimination.

When asked for comment, the university directed KUT to Hartzell's email and declined to answer follow-up questions.

DCCE supported programs to help the university "offer education to those who may face the most significant challenges in accessing it," according to its website. Programs included First Generation Longhorns, the Disability Cultural Center and Women in STEM. Most recently, the division hosted a Women's History Month celebration.

The university hasn't announced which specific programs will shut down but provided a list of programs that will continue under other departments. KUT reached out to employees at DCCE, but didn't receive any more information.

'Ramifications for non-compliance'

UT's announcement comes a week after state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe — author of SB 17 — said in a letter he was "deeply concerned" that universities were making superficial changes to comply with SB 17, like renaming offices or job titles.

"This letter should serve as notice that this practice is unacceptable — and also a reminder that SB 17 encompasses stringent enforcement provisions, including the potential freezing of university funding and legal ramifications for non-compliance," Creighton wrote.

The Division of Campus and Community Engagement was previously known as the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. UT Austin changed the name on Jan. 1. The university has also renamed several other organizations since SB 17 went into effect.

After UT Austin announced the layoffs, Creighton commended it for "taking steps to ensure compliance with SB 17."

"While any decision to release staff members is a difficult one, the efficiencies gained, and reinvestment into recruiting a diverse blend students and professors, based upon merit, are of the highest priority," he said in an email.

Students and staff say the changes the university has made in response to the law have already been substantial, and the layoffs and closure of DCCE go beyond what's required.

'A McCarthy-era purge'

Karma Chávez, the chair of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, said the employees who are losing their jobs were no longer working on DEI policies or initiatives. Based on what she has observed, Chávez — who was speaking on behalf of herself and not her department — said she thinks those employees were let go because they had worked on DEI issues in the past.

“I can’t help but see this as a purge of any staff who have training in DEI — literally like a McCarthy-era purge — because none of the staff who’ve been fired have any DEI in their portfolio right now,” she said. “All they had is a history of being in a DEI-related position.”

Lisa Moore, chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, also described the layoffs as a “purge.” Moore, who was also speaking on behalf of herself, pointed out that while people once held positions related to DEI — jobs for which they were previously recruited — their responsibilities had been changed to comply with SB 17.

“We have a charge from the state constitution to operate a university of the first class, and if we can’t run our academic departments without interference from the Legislature, then we can no longer compete with the top universities in the country and around the world."
Lisa Moore, chair of the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies

“The fact that they’re not doing that work now and they’re in compliance with the law doesn’t seem to be the point," she said. "It seems to be the point that they are going to be bullied and harassed until they leave UT because they once worked in DEI."

The dissolution of UT services that support students from marginalized groups has a ripple effect for faculty, Chávez said. Professors will likely find themselves informally filling the gaps that departments and other programs used to officially provide before SB 17 took effect.

“It’s going to fall into the hands of professors who come from marginalized backgrounds — so faculty of color, queer faculty, trans faculty, first gen faculty, immigrant faculty,” she said. “Those faculty who are already marginalized on this campus who already do a disproportionate amount of unseen and uncredited service, they will now be overburdened by this as well.”

Even though SB 17 is not supposed to impact what professors teach in the classroom, Chávez said she thinks the writing is on the wall for departments like hers.

“I have 100% confidence that my department — and Black Studies, and Gender and Women Studies, and Native American/Indigenous Studies and Asian American Studies — that we are next on the chopping block,” she said. “I have no doubt that the ultimate goal is to get rid of all of us who are doing any kind of work that reflects people who do not come from a predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian background.”

Moore said the layoffs are already having an impact on the university’s ability to educate students. She said she knows department chairs have lost senior staff, none of whom were working on DEI policies.

“We have a charge from the state constitution to operate a university of the first class, and if we can’t run our academic departments without interference from the Legislature, then we can no longer compete with the top universities in the country and around the world,” she said.

A graduate student employed by DCCE also said their program and others being shut down were already "fully SB 17 compliant" before the layoffs and that the decision to close DCCE feels "retaliatory."

"There's no offices that are doing diversity training anymore," they said. "There's no specific support for student groups that are focused around an identity group."

The student asked to be anonymous because they're worried about keeping their employment for the rest of the semester.

"A lot of these staff that are being laid off are people who might write [students'] job recommendations, who have been supporting them all the way through job applications and graduate applications and life changes," they said. "I think a lot of students are feeling like they're losing a lot of support and community spaces."

Texas' Senate Committee on Education will conduct a hearing next month to monitor state universities' progress on implementing SB 17. University chancellors are asked to give updates on how they're eliminating DEI initiatives.

Chelsey Zhu is the digital producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email her at czhu@kut.org.
Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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